NASA Watching

By SpaceRef Editor
December 17, 1999
Filed under

Keith Cowing. Not reporting live from Pasadena, California. Drat.

It’s Friday evening, December 3, 6:26 p.m. and Keith Cowing’s covering NASA’s latest Martian adventure from his house. So far it hasn’t been much of a thrill – no one’s heard a peep from the Mars Polar Lander even though the research vessel should have touched down almost three hours ago on the red planet. The Lander was supposed to send back some data and one picture of Martian real estate shortly thereafter. It didn’t.

Cowing’s bummed. He planned to run a Mars “special” this weekend, updating his Internet news service every 30 minutes or whenever snippets arrived from his mission control sources at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. He’d love to be at ground-zero – in the pressroom at JPL – but NASA says he’s “vanity press,” among other things, and won’t credential him. Same thing happened when he tried to cover JPL’s hugely successful Mars Pathfinder mission back in 1997.

Right now, Mars is more important than any government paperwork, so he sets aside his beef with NASA to go about the task of real-time publishing on one of his space junkie sites. This one’s called SpaceRef.com. “If I’m awake,” he said, “I’ll be in front of my computer.”

Thirty minutes ago, he got something new; he typed it; then he published it – with the push of a button.

Cowing’s 5:50 p.m. edition mirrored the ominous mood of many at NASA. Three months ago, The Mars Climate Orbiter, another mission from JPL, failed miserably as a result of human and project management errors, according to a review panel. Now the team desperately wanted to hear the sweet music of spacecraft telemetry.

“2:50 PST (5:50 p.m. in the east). Lander should be on the ground. We are awaiting transmission from lander. The second window of opportunity for signal detection from the Mars Polar Lander has now come and gone. Another opportunity will occur at 7:25 PM EST when an attempt will be made to detect signals from the DS-2 microprobes. An opportunity to detect signals from the MPL will begin between 8:00 to 8:30 PM PST according to JPL.”

Meanwhile, the official NASA web site at 5:50 p.m. was dead stale.

“Mars Polar Lander is just a few hours away from arrival.”

That’s what bugs Cowing. Here he is, again, scooping the very agency he loves to cover – NASA – and they won’t even give him press accreditation. Yet he continues to outshine them when it comes to getting breaking news out to NASA employees, contractors and people who care about space. He’s sure of it – on the Internet, feedback is immediate.

He said, she said

Cowing’s feelings about NASA can pretty much be summed up by a never-changing headline on his NASA Watch electronic news service site, one of the many Internet ventures he tends from his home in Reston, Virginia. “This is a not a NASA Web site. You might learn something,” the headline reads.

Cowing, a biologist by trade, worked as a federal employee and a contractor at NASA for nine years until he quit the agency in 1993. In 1996, he came back to NASA, in the form of a thorn in their side. He developed a Web site – NASA RIF Watch – that shined a spotlight on the agency’s low-profile plans to implement budget cuts and layoffs. The reduction-in-force crisis ended – some say in part because of Cowing’s Web site – but the Web site lived on. Cowing had built a loyal following of NASA employees, apparently tired of being kept in the dark about space and career-altering issues. He then channeled that continuous stream of inside information into a Web-based news service called NASA Watch. Cowing is the editor, publisher, reporter, gofer, janitor. And while he does earn a living publishing other Web sites – including The Astrobiology Web and SpaceRef, a mainstream version of NASA Watch – he says NASA Watch is funded out of his own pocket.

Cowing is fascinated with space exploration and he can’t understand how NASA, a world icon for everything good about space, could take such a passive role when it comes to media presence and worker morale.

“I just feel that there are things that need to be reported,” Cowing said, adding that he has an investment of several hundred thousand dollars in his various ventures and he has no plans to halt the service any time soon. Besides that, he enjoys it and so do his followers. “People tell me they can’t live without (NASA Watch),” Cowing said.

Cowing provides his readers with a wide spectrum of space news. On any given day, breaking news might cover anything from Space Shuttle wiring flubs, to internal memos on International Space Station growing pains, to supposed temper tantrums by NASA chief Dan Goldin over repeated sightings of an old NASA logo that he wants to eliminate. NASA Watch standard fare includes 50 NASA-internal columns, tracking stories like space tourism and the progress of high-profile missions; 28 links to mainstream news outlets with space news; 11 newsgroups; and 10 Webcast sites.

And Cowing’s sources are always fresh – they’re the people working in the agency’s technical trenches.

But Cowing’s investments or his wide-ranging brand of reporting don’t matter much to NASA’s press credential guru, Peggy Wilhide, the associate administrator for public affairs. Wilhide faces the daily grind of jamming 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound bag – so many reporters, so little pressroom space. She dreads the consequences of letting the Keith Cowing’s of the E-world have keys to the city of NASA. “I have people coming here all the time saying they’re doing documentaries,” she said. “Where would I draw the line?”

In a letter to Cowing, dated August 4, 1999, Wilhide wrote that Cowing couldn’t be accredited by NASA unless he worked for a recognized news gathering organization with a formal, organized structure behind it. Freelance journalists, she continued, could only get accreditation when on assignment from a magazine, newspaper, television station, Internet news site, or “other recognized news gathering organization.” Then she took a deep stab into Cowing and the new “journalists” everywhere. “Just having a site on the Internet does not automatically qualify you as a news gathering organization, just as printing a story on a flyer or a pamphlet does not qualify you as a news gathering organization,” Wilhide wrote.

Cowing promptly posted the letter on NASA Watch – but added his own commentary interspersed with Wilhide’s denial. “Editor’s note: Isn’t it curious how the rules have changed. Have you ever bothered to check on how many employees America’s first newspapers had? You know, the ones who’s actions (pamphlets, etc.) led to “freedom of the press” becoming a closely-held right Americans have cherished for centuries.”

Back in 1997, Cowing’s attempt to get accreditation for the Mars Pathfinder mission had been snubbed by another member of NASA’s public affairs staff. That time, NASA responded that Cowing was not “legitimate” press – that his Web site was more of a “vanity press.”

Wilhide stands by her decision, pointing out that NASA accreditation procedures are more lax than many other government entities – like Capitol Hill. Wilhide was Vice President Al Gore’s press secretary for 18 months before coming to NASA.

“I’ve got to maintain a working environment for professional reporters,” Wilhide said. For last year’s John Glenn return-to-orbit mission, she juggled 4,000 media representatives. For her, you’re a professional, working reporter – or you’re gone. “I just want to keep it to professional journalists,” she said.

“Cowing’s more of a borderline case,” she continued, saying that the way he posted her letter shows poor journalistic taste. “He doesn’t give people the chance to respond (to him) unedited,” she said. And regarding the people who visit Cowing’s NASA Watch site – an average of 5,000 every day – Wilhide said, “They should get a life!” Asked whether she ever gets the urge to peek, she replied, “I have much more important things to do. NASA Watch is just total inside baseball.”

Oh, but the big shots do watch, Cowing said. Though he would not release it, Cowing said he has data showing many high-level NASA types frequenting his site every day. And regarding Wilhide’s reasons for the denial, Cowing wonders why other science organizations don’t agree with them – he said he’s currently accredited by the House of Representatives’ Science Committee, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Space Business Assembly.

Barbarians at the gate?

Cowing’s problems with NASA – and Wilhide’s responses – are not atypical. They’re a symptom of a much broader issue that mainstream media faces today: Should “armchair” journalists, lacking “traditional” journalistic training, be openly accepted into mainstream media? It’s a question so new that journalists, media critics and public affairs professionals are just now beginning to wrestle with it.

Some “traditional” journalists are skeptical that “untrained” journalists like Cowing won’t subscribe to the unending pursuit of fairness and accuracy in reporting, a fundamental tenet of their formal journalistic training.

“This to me is the single hardest issue facing those of us who care about journalism,” wrote Mike Godwin, author, for the Freedom Forum Online’s ‘What’s Next?’ study. “How do we inculcate ethics among this new, huge wave of practicing journalists, few of whom will have gone to j-school, and few of whom will have been taught by experienced professionals on the job?”

Godwin thinks the answer is “prescriptive”, that traditional journalists have to give the new on-line journalists the benefit of the doubt – proclaim them to be journalists – offer them support and encouragement, praise and constructive criticism, and, most of all, comradeship. “Like St. Peter at the gates of heaven,” Godwin wrote, “we must choose to err on the side of letting people in rather than keeping them out.”

Other experts recommend a more cautious approach to the new age publishers.

Ted Gup, journalism teacher at Georgetown University, wrote in the same publication, “With the advent of the Internet, the expansion of cable and other technologies, we are witness to a revolution, a universal enfranchisement in which suddenly everyone is a journalist.” And Gup isn’t sure this is a good thing.

Gup is concerned about journalistic values – the ethics that are drilled into aspiring students in journalism school. “Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that there is more to being a journalist than simply being heard,” Gup wrote, “A thousand people may take up the microphone in karaoke, and yet not one of them may be a singer. It is fallacy that everyone may be a journalist – as if the title were conferred along with the capability to project one’s voice, one’s image or one’s words.”

Who then, is a journalist? To Gup, a journalist is defined by the sum of his or her training, character and attitude. Training – the conveyance of basic journalistic skills – may be the least important though. “Many of the best journalists learned on the job, with patient editors and forgiving readers,” Gup wrote. Most important, he feels, is that serious writers realize that journalism is a calling and not merely a trade.

“A journalist, deep down, knows that he or she does not work for The New York Times or Emporia Gazette, though they issue the checks and provide the necessary forum. A journalist works for the public. And ultimately answers to the public alone,” Gup surmised.

Cowing admits he doesn’t have the training. But he does consider himself to be a journalist, not because he’s decided that – but because his readers decided that. And Cowing knows about answering to the public. When he publishes over the Internet, reader reaction is immediate. “If I’m dead honest – I get info. If I’m wrong – I get shut off,” he said.

A growing number of professional journalists are vouching for Cowing’s brand of reporting. Several space industry reporters came to his aid as part of a NASA Watch on-line open forum to drum up support for his accreditation battle.

Frank Sietzen, Jr., former Washington bureau chief for Space.com news service, said every reporter that covers the space program uses NASA Watch on a daily or regular basis – himself included. And Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC on the Internet, admitted that many people inside and outside of NASA turn to Cowing’s site for the “scoop on space.”

Cowing has the ear of at least one prominent politician too.

After this latest denial for credentials, James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Committee on Science came to Cowing’s defense, shooting off a letter to Wilhide. In that letter, Sensenbrenner politely asked if NASA’s media accreditation criteria were evolving in step with the Internet and its new “representatives.”

Sensenbrenner’s response came from the Ed Heffernan, NASA associate administrator for legislative affairs. In the letter, Heffernan admitted that NASA – pre-Cowing – didn’t have an agency-wide credential policy. Currently, he said they have a policy in place that mimics the press policies at the White House, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Congress. That policy allows a journalist to be accredited if he or she is full time or can show that half of their earned income comes from journalism.

Sensenbrenner fired back a response – this time to NASA chief Dan Goldin. Was NASA’s new policy created just to keep Cowing out? “It appears that way,” Sensenbrenner wrote, adding, “NASA could not fairly make such a determination since NASA Watch had not provided the relevant information to NASA and, in the absence of a public policy, was unaware what information it needed to provide to NASA.”

Additionally, Sensenbrenner pointed out that the new NASA media policy had one huge difference from the House and Senate policies. Out of respect for the independent press, he wrote, at the House and Senate, the media decides who can and who cannot get press accreditation. At NASA, a federal government official was making the choice.

The response, again, came from Heffernan. In it, he wrote that NASA would put together an accreditation team of experts from the various NASA field centers and that the team would present its findings to Wilhide at a future date. But for now, he wrote, the existing media selection criteria would remain firmly in place.

Signs of life

In the meantime, Cowing’s in no rush. Fact is he’s enjoying the celebrity that not getting credentials has afforded him, including a recent (and still un-aired) CNN story and an article in Wired. “NASA inflates my importance by denying me that,” he said.

He admits, however, that press credentials could improve the news that NASA Watch delivers. “NASA’s complaint is that I’m not accurate,” he said, “but without accreditation, no one will return my calls. I can’t get into closed press conferences. I can’t get access to reports.”

Even without accreditation – or a pass to ground-zero – Cowing’s still cranking.

Keith Cowing, self-proclaimed cyberjournalist, is on the job, reporting from – dammit – Reston, Virginia. “Whether (Wilhide) likes it or not, I’m not going away,” he said. “NASA needs to get used to the idea of 1,000 NASA Watches. This is the Internet – it ain’t going away.”

At 1:05 a.m. Saturday morning, he publishes his last update for the “night”.

He reports that prospects for finding the Mars Polar Lander are getting bleaker. Even two independent probes that should have speared into the soil and later bounced data back to the Mars-orbiting Global Surveyor were silent. With three paragraphs of technical rapping, Cowing discusses the situation and the upcoming opportunities to listen for signs of life from the Lander. He signs off telling his readers that Mars is currently 14 light minutes away from Earth.

The official NASA site made its last report nearly 12 hours ago – stale again.

SpaceRef staff editor.