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?

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