Monday, March 31, 1997

Week of 03/31/1997

The Media Versus The Internet
Do you think the news media likes the Net? Guess Again!
- by David Matthews 2

Pop quiz boys and girls: You’re part of a multimillion dollar telecommunications medium that reaches out to people around the world. What you say is taken as gospel without question. That’s the way it’s been for decades and as far as you’re concerned it’s the way it’ll be for eternity.

Now take into account a new medium of communication that has grasped the curiosity of people. A medium that works just as fast as yours, cheaper than yours, and opens the scope to aspects that you would never involve yourself into. Worse yet, you’re not even the center of attention in this new media! You have to compete against everyone else in this medium!

So do you welcome this new medium with open arms? Or do you find every means possible to trash it, thereby ensuring your continued position of power over the people?

What do you do?

Well if you’re part of the news media, you certainly don’t want to welcome this new medium called the Internet with open arms! And indeed that has been the case.

Did you ever wonder why a lot of attention has been focused on the worst part of the Internet by the news? From Time Magazine’s infamous (and dangerously over-exaggerated) "Cybersmut" story to the concentration of the connection to a cult’s recent mass suicide to the Internet, the news media has spun a highly toxic tale of woe about the Internet that would make even the most cyber-aware squirm.

Members of the media are quick to point out that ANYTHING can be said on the Net for almost ANYONE to pick up. And yes, it’s in part true. Everyone has a voice on the Internet. If you think TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a missile instead of being downed by mechanical or human error, you can post your beliefs on the Internet for the world to digest and critique. If you love a certain movie star or pinup model you can fill space on the Internet with your pictures, video clips, sound bytes, and fantasy stories about them for the whole world to share. And if you’re a writer, like myself, you can use the Internet to post stories or articles about current events without ever having to worry about some editor nixing them on a whim.

What goes with that medium, though, is the realization that people can also use the Internet to post views or ideas that are radically divergent from the mainstream populace. Yes, hate groups, militias, and cults are also free to use the Internet to voice their opinions or to vent their frustrations. And despite efforts to curb such variant voices by legislation (i.e. the "Communications Decency Act") or political pressure (i.e. the Simon Weisenthal Center) it should be painfully obvious that the Internet will continue to be an equal-opportunity sounding board.

Which brings us back to the news media. The media thrives on controversy; it’s their bread and butter. Good news brings happiness, but bad news brings ratings. And members of the media know that all they have to do to create a story is to get people pissed off about a topic. Easy to do - just grab an issue and exaggerate its effect to an obscene amount so that it gets people’s attention. And when it comes to the Internet, it’s easy to pick an issue that will get the people riled up. In fact all they have to do is go through a search engine and they’ll have access to any issue they want.

The most recent example of this is the mass suicides by the Heaven’s Gate group. This was an organization that even cult watchers at first claim they didn’t know about, operating in relative obscurity in a wealthy community. Unlike the Branch Davidians or other groups, the Heaven’s Gate followers were techno-savvy people who not only made their presence known on the Internet, but also supported their organization by designing web sites for other groups or businesses.

And the fact that this group was online gave the news media yet another clip of ammunition to use on the Internet as target practice. Soon afterwards people were hearing about all the cults that were already online that you or your children could access at any time. All the different organizations with different messages, and wonder why the government can’t move in to "protect us."

Let’s be brutally honest here: The news media WANT the Internet to be regulated and handicapped. That’s the only way they can ensure their power base. What, do you really think the air-fluffed reporters at CBS, NBC, ABC, or CNN want to be on equal footing online with people like myself? To know that you can access my weekly columns just as easily as their weekly commentaries? I don’t think so! I may be currently insignificant in the literary field, but on the Internet I HAVE equal footing with the "big boys."

Those who read my articles know that censorship, be it on the Internet or elsewhere, is a big deal for me. And by all accounts, censorship should be a big issue for the news media as well. But listening to the commentaries by reporters and viewing how the various news organizations view coverage of the Internet, it’s apparent that most of them are in favor of censorship as long as it doesn’t include them. Of all the news organizations, only C|net Central and The Site have taken a stance that is NOT pro-censorship. But while The Site is not pro-censorship, its host network MSNBC leans towards censorship. (Ironically, MSNBC is co-founded by Microsoft - one of the businesses fighting the most oppressive piece of censorship so far, namely the CDA.)

Look, before the Internet the only way you could present your views was to run a gauntlet of editors, directors, producers, publishers, regulators, and peer groups who dissected every nuance and every pronunciation to make sure what you say didn’t get them into a lawsuit. Today’s air-fluffed media personalities still have to operate that way. Despite all claims of "freedom of the press" the televised news media is the most regulated group around. And you know it burns them up to talk about a medium - ANY medium - that operates without such stringent controls.

I, for one, am tired of listening to the media play "chicken little" with the Net. I am sick of hearing about all the so-called "dangerous" things there are online for people to access. Guess what Blinky - they exist in the real world too! Why aren’t you trying to do something about that first?

The solution isn’t hard to find - it’s called parental responsibility and software! Many of the parental control devices available today are now attuned to hate groups as well as sexually explicit material, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere down the line they start to include cults in their listings. If you don’t want little Johnny Dimple or little Suzy Purebred to have access to these sites you HAVE to assert your control over your computer and STOP thinking that the whole world should bow down to your fears. Parents have to remember that THEY are the ones who bought the computer, THEY are the ones who are paying for their kids to be online, and therefore it is up to THEM to be responsible how their kids use the computer.

And to the media, I say get off your self-centered high horses! The Internet is not going away anytime soon, but you might be! Change IS on the way, and when it take effect people will not look towards the news like they did. Deal with it, because if you can’t it’ll run you over like a steam roller over soft eggs, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourselves and your collective air-fluffed egos.

Let’s put it this way: when the transition is done, the news media will have a medium of communications that will be a lot more open and freer than television ever could be! But this can only happen if the air-fluffed personalities and their ratings-hungry bosses don’t destroy it by crying "wolf" at every perceived threat to the Internet. There are plenty of REAL issues to tackle without the news media starting more trouble than necessary

And isn’t it the purpose of journalism to report the news instead of creating it?

Monday, March 24, 1997

Week of 03/24/1997

Cycle of Sensationalism
The code of media hype has been cracked!
- by David Matthews 2

How many times has this happened - You’re watching members of the media talk about a certain issue that they’re against, and you swear that just last week they were on the other side of the issue. Pick an issue, any issue. One minute the press talks in praise of Bill Clinton, the next they’re about ready to lynch him. They want to legalize drugs one week, the next they’re condemning drugs. A man is all but convicted by the media one month, the next month they consider him to be wrongly accused.

What’s going on, you ask?

It’s simple - it’s called the Cycle of Sensationalism. It’s the predictable pattern by which the media plays their game on the general public. Sometimes it happens over a period of weeks or months, or all in the same story. But no matter what, a good percentage of media-generated issues has been proceeding in the following pattern:

Discovery - The media first has to introduce us to the issue. What is it? Let’s say the issue is Ross Perot. Well who is Ross Perot? Why should we care about him?

Deify - Once recognized, the media then begins the cycle of sensationalism by praising the issue to the level that it can do no wrong. If the issue is Ross Perot, the media will talk about all the good things he’s done as a private citizen. All the issues he’s supported. All the things he wants to talk about.

Demonize - Once the issue has been deified to a point where it can do no wrong, the media then turns the tables and condemns the issue until it can do no right. With Perot, it’s bringing up some former associates who still have a grudge against him. Or questioning one of his past statements to see if it’s true. Every misstep, every fault no matter how minor can and will be used to shoot down the issue.

At this point the cycle is usually over. The issue has been both praised and condemned until there is no credibility to it whatsoever. The members of the media can then turn their focus on yet another issue.

But of late there has been a new aspect brought into this cycle - Lamentation. The media, recognizing it’s potential to mold public opinion and to make or break even the most powerful of politicians and businessmen, then begin to publicly wonder if they "crossed the line." As if there really WAS a line they hadn’t crossed already. This part of the cycle became crystal clear during the Richard Jewel incident, when at first the press was ready to lynch Jewel and complained that the federal investigators were dragging their heels on the issue. Weeks later, after evidence was presented to clear Jewel of any wrongdoing, the investigators had to publicly drop Jewel as a suspect. Only then did the media begin to "wonder" if they acted hastily. Of course they did! I even warned against it on the Internet! ("Media Bloodhounds," 8/5/96) ABC recently began their lamentation concerning their investigation of the quality of food in certain Food Lion stores, but only after the network lost big a civil lawsuit filed by Food Lion.

And it’s not just a national cycle. Even the local TV stations are doing the same thing with local issues - especially an issue they can extend over a period of two or three days and call it a "special in-depth report."

The purpose of this cycle is simple: to convince you that there is NOTHING you can rely on, save for the media themselves. No issue is sacred - religion, sex, relationships, politics, business, children, doctors, lawyers, even the media in general. All are fair game. Even the inclusion of the lamentation phase is a deliberate attempt by the media to cover their tracks when they’re proven wrong or are perceived to be on the wrong side of an issue.

So how have they been able to get away with it for so long? Well, partly because we let them. We hear this clip on the radio or TV and we want to know more. So we watch the show or news broadcast, knowing we’ll probably wait through ¾ of the nonsense before seeing this quick story that will - at best - last five to ten minutes. Just enough for a couple of sound bites, some free (and biased) commentaries from the journalist, and a few cute remarks from the air-fluffed anchors before moving on to the next story.

Another reason why the media has been able to get away with pulling this mind game so long is because they’ve been able to overlap several issues in various stages so that we wouldn’t notice. We’ll hear about the Internet on the "good" side while they concentrate on the "bad" side of a certain government bureaucracy. By the time we hear about the "bad" side of the Internet, the media will be "lamenting" over their investigation of that bureaucracy before "discovering" a new story. Before long you can’t really tell that the media has been playing this big head game on you.

The solution to this, however, is not easy. We all rely on the news. If we have a TV set we’ll inevitably watch the nightly news - if anything just to find out what the weather will be for tomorrow. Even the Internet isn’t immune to the influence of this cycle since all major networks now have sites on the Internet and even have one designed for the Net - MSNBC. But thanks to the Internet we can also CONTACT them and let them know our displeasure. Let them know we are tired of them playing their head games on us!

Look, once upon a time the media had a simple role, which was to provide the news, be it good, bad, or indifferent. The print media - to a certain extent - still does that. But the mistaken belief that televised media has an additional role to "entertain" us has blurred the line of journalistic integrity to the point where it can only be seen through the eyes of producers and high-priced attorneys. Journalists, be they on television, the Internet, or in newsprint, have to go back the role of reporters as impartial observers. Their role is to observe and report the news without judgment either favorable or unfavorable to the issue. If they want to vent opinions they should step off from their journalistic soapbox and vent them like the rest of us ordinary citizens.

Let the bean counters and ratings-staved producers rant themselves until they froth at the mouth like rabid dogs! There is nothing in the First Amendment that says there is freedom of speech as long as it’s a 20-share in the ratings!

Monday, March 17, 1997

Week of 03/17/1997

Fair Trade for Free Speech?
Would you be willing to shut up to shut someone else up?
- by David Matthews 2

As I put fingers to keyboard, I know that what I think is the ultimate test of the First Amendment protection of Free Speech will soon begin.

On March 19th, the US Supreme Court will be hearing the challenge of the ACLU and literally thousands of people and businesses against the US Government over the Communications Decency Act. Many observers feel that the majority of nine justices will agree with what six federal judges have already said - that the CDA is blatantly unconstitutional and that the Internet should be given as much protection under the First Amendment as printed material, if not more. I, as a member of the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, certainly hope that is the case.

And yet as I read the Department of Justice’s briefs to the appeal, I am reminded just how ignorant sometimes people in power can be in regards to what free speech is all about. We have Janet Reno and the DoJ saying that adults can speak freely on the Internet, but only if they fork over more money for special ID programs. They attribute it to "keeping the kids out of the room." There is another way - it’s called PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY. But then again, the US government thinks that all parents are idiots and cannot be held responsible for supervising their own kids. Then there’s SOFTWARE that is put into the computer that can keep kids out. But then again, that requires people being RESPONSIBLE, and the US government doesn’t believe it’s own people can be responsible. We can hold a 14-year old responsible for murder, but we can’t fathom that a 30-year old can EVER be responsible for their own kids.

It’s also curious that the DoJ can argue that parental control software like Surfwatch and Cyber-Sitter can’t protect kids, but somehow have impeccable faith in so-called "Age Verification" systems - whose only determination for who is 8 and who is 18 involves a credit card. Doesn’t matter whose card, doesn’t even have to be your own, just as long as it’s valid. Typical US Government response: it only matters if you give MONEY!

Well either way, it’ll boil down to nine judges making that determination for us all, and we only hope that they have enough information and good sense in the Constitution to come to the only right decision, which is to strike down this piece of trash they have the balls to call the "Communications Decency Act."

What worries me, however, is the long list of senators and representatives who are already hammering out what can only be called CDA2 - the NEXT level of censorship should the CDA be declared unconstitutional. These Neo-puritans and the special-interest groups that paid for them want to go through the First Amendment like Freddie Kruger through a high school prom - with bloody blades and a quick repartee for the audience. And I’m wondering if they have the full scope of what censorship really is.

Essentially, censorship is about shutting people up. Now I know there’s some overly pious individual who is eager to E-mail me with the classic "you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater" argument that censorship freaks love to use as the justification for squelching any voice they don’t like. And here’s the rub - the original text is that you can’t FALSELY shout "fire" in a crowded theater. There are laws involving slander and libel. The only problem to these censorship freaks is that it involves their OWN money and their OWN time to get lawyers and file suits. They would much rather have someone ELSE spend money and time on this stuff.

Look, I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of stuff I find offensive out in the real world. I find bland, rehashed, boilermaker network sitcoms offensive. I find pious attitudes by members of the media offensive. I find the Christian Coalition offensive. I find it offensive that we can go to any software or department store and buy a program that can blow people into little pieces in gory graphic detail, but heaven help the guy who wants to buy the Playboy Screen Saver. I find the way politicians twist the laws so that they are exempt from them to be offensive. I find hate groups offensive. I find any group that wants to tell me how to live my life offensive. And yes, there are times when I wish I could get a law passed that would ban such groups from even breathing, much less speaking.

But then I remind myself of a little fact - the First Amendment is an equal-opportunity offender. The right for me to say something that can offend you is the same right for you to say something that can offend me.

So here’s a question for any of you censorship freaks, neo-puritans, and moralists out there: Would you be willing to shut up whatever group offends you if it meant you also lost your right to speak out? If you don’t like Playboy or Penthouse - would you be willing to shut them up forever if it meant that you would also be silenced forever? If you hate the Klu Klux Klan, would you be willing to silence them if it meant you couldn’t speak out on any other issue for the rest of your life?

I think that would be a strong and healthy "NO" I’m hearing out there..

And that’s the point.

Monday, March 10, 1997

Week of 03/10/1997

Target - Al Gore
The GOP has their sights on the Vice President
- by David Matthews 2

Well it was bound to happen. The crosshairs of the GOP are trained on the one person they believe to be chiefly responsible for the campaign fundraising scandal: Vice President Al Gore.

And the GOP wants blood!

The Republicans are alleging that the vice president deliberately broke federal election laws by soliciting funds for the Democratic Party on federal property and using federal services. And they are demanding for an independent prosecutor to look into possible felony indictments, hoping that they can finally nail somebody in the White House for something.

Uh, excuse me, congressmen and senators, but have you ever heard of "franking?" Yeah, you know, when you use your signatures in lieu of postage stamps to mail out your re-election campaign statements which are thinly disguised as progress reports? That is going through the post office - still considered a federal service. How many of you still use it?

And while we’re looking at the campaign affairs of the Clinton Administration, why shouldn’t we also look at how the Republicans gained their campaign funds in Congress? Why should we be limited to just one dominant and domineering party when the chief inquisitor is the other dominant and domineering party? The republicans consider themselves to be the party of such things as "ethics" and "values," so why are they so reluctant to have their fundraising sources exposed to the public as well? If they’re so ethical, what do they have to hide?

Look, the excuse "everybody does it" may be overrated, but in dealing with Washington politics and the career politicians who have earned every bit of disrespect we have for them, it’s more than just and excuse - it’s a fact of life in politics.

There is another all-important reason why the republicans are now targeting Gore for investigations: as vice-president, Gore is the heir apparent to carrying on the Clinton campaign in 2000. Just like George Bush in 1988, Al Gore can ride the coattails of Bill Clinton to the ballot box while every other contender has to fight through the ranks. But if Gore can get sidetracked early with a scandal - if not an indictment, impeachment, or conviction - it’ll be harder for him to be elected. And it’s not an original strategy either - the Democrats tried that against Bush in the 88 campaign with Iran/Contra, although it was too little too late to really harm him.

In the long run, though, the fault must rest with us, the voters. We’re the ones who continue to elect and re-elect these people to office. We’re also the ones who can eventually fix this problem by voting with our heads and not on the basis of sound bites and phony issues. That too is a fact of life in politics.

Monday, March 3, 1997

Week of 03/03/1997

Hold me, Kiss me, Thrill me, Clone me
The good and bad about cloning
- by David Matthews 2

This past week all the rage was about cloning. A sheep was cloned in Scotland, and just this Sunday American scientists announced that they were able to clone a monkey.

This has, quite predictably, caused an uproar about the ethical reasons behind cloning. And let’s face it, we have been filled with horror stories about cloning from "The Island of Doctor Moreau" to comedies like "Multiplicity." Even two comic book legends - Superman and Spider-Man - were cloned more than once.

Some people have even entertained the notion that "we’re not ready" for cloning. Look, when WILL we be ready for cloning? When we’ve entered some futuristic utopian society? I think I can safely say that there will NEVER be a time when we will be "ready" for cloning - even in some apocalyptic future where we have to clone ourselves in order to save the human race from extinction. I really don’t think this is one of those situations that we can really be "ready" for - only deal with as it comes along.

So let’s get to some bare facts about cloning, shall we? Let’s start by hypothetically cloning myself - a clone of David 2 that we’ll call David 2A.

To begin with, although David 2A will be genetically identical to me, it won’t really be a copy of me. There are some physical differences that my theoretical clone won’t have, such as scars from surgery and accidents, torn ligaments and muscles from a high school accident, and even his dental patterns won’t match mine because of the extractions, filings, and crowns in my mouth. He may have my slightly superior eyesight and my singing voice, but he won’t have the ears that have been blasted from too many concerts and stereo speakers cranked up too high.

My clone would not have my history either. How we grow up and how we see the world are an important part of our personality. Think about it. I was born in 1966 - with memories of everything that went on for thirty years. Things my parents did, things I did, things that happened in the world were all unique to that period of time and cannot be duplicated. My clone - using today’s technology - would be born in 1997. David 2A would be growing up in a completely different world than me. Even if he were to be raised by my parents, they would be parents who are completely different now than thirty years ago.

So let’s suppose we could clone me, and accelerate David 2A so that he would be starting out thirty years old, with all my memories and experiences. And let’s further suppose that he be given the exact same surgical scars, blasted hearing, dental patterns, and torn ligaments as I experienced. Would he then be an exact copy of me?

No he wouldn’t. Because there is something else that is unique that isn’t part of history or biology - and that is our personal likes and dislikes. This is the random part of ourselves. Who is to say that David 2A will like science fiction? Or anchovies on his pizza? Or cats? Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll like country music, dogs, and cheese-only pizzas. Maybe after watching his parents smoke for twenty years and spending years dealing with people who smoke that my clone decides to take up smoking. Maybe instead of being a libertarian he decides to go back to being a die-hard republican? Or worse - how about a born-again militant Baptist spouting delusions that make him sound more like David Duke and not David Matthews 2? It’s this randomness that helps make up who we are that can’t be duplicated.

And that leads me to an interesting theoretical question - would David 2A have a soul? Major religious figures - including the Catholic Church - are pro-life but are anti-clone because they believe that man should only reproduce the old-fashioned way. But does that mean that clones would not have a soul? That somehow they would be considered less than human? If we’re not careful, we could end up with another civil war over clone rights.

Ethical questions notwithstanding, there are some benefits to cloning. Consider the number of endangered species that could be saved by cloning them. We could bring back the buffalo and the whale from near-extinction. Breeders won’t have to worry about pedigree if they want to duplicate their dear prize-winning purebred cat or dog - just clone them. (I’m waiting for the pedigree breeders to balk about this.) Being able to clone people can also lead to genetic engineering that can help us remove certain diseases or disorders. Imagine what we could do if we could determine the gene that causes baldness or obesity or some mental conditions. We could alter those genes and clone people who would be free of those defects.

But whatever the reason, it’s irrelevant for us to say we’re not "ready" for cloning. It’s here. It’s also silly to suppose that now the genie is out of the bottle that we won’t try to clone humans. If we can clone monkeys, I’m sure cloning humans is only a test-tube away.

Look, the last time we stuck our heads in the sand about a significant scientific discovery we ended up with the atomic bomb. And if we really want to prevent the genetic equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from happening we need to first accept the fact that cloning does exist, it is possible, and realize that nothing aside from personal ethics will stop someone from cloning humans. And once that’s a reality, we need to think about what makes us who we are - is it biology, history, our personal tastes, or a combination of all of them?