Monday, July 12, 1999

Week of 07/12/1999

The Media Versus The Internet - Revisited
Two Years Later - Same Chicken Little Games
- by David Matthews 2

Pop quiz boys and girls: You’re part of a multi-million 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?

That question was posed to my readers on March 31st, 1997. The old guard then, of course, was televised media. The new guard was this medium.. the Internet.

The main point back then was that the media was solidly opposed to the Internet being open and relatively unregulated. Television and Radio, the most dominant form of media today, are also the most regulated and hindered of mediums, so naturally they don’t want to have to compete against an upstart medium that operates without those controls.

Of course, one could say that the media wasn’t used to the Internet back then. After all, the Internet wasn’t as mainstream as it is today. Oh sure, people heard of America Online, but for the general populace, the Internet was still considered a "geek" hobby. A "cheap" computer then cost $1500, and only the serious Internet people played around at speeds faster than 33.6 baud.

A lot has changed since then. The Internet was given the full protection of the First Amendment later on that year thanks to the US Supreme Court. Computers became cheaper, and more Internet service providers came forth. Now you can surf the web on your TV set and get e-mail via pagers and cell phone.

So what about the media? Have they changed now that they are more aware and informed about the Internet?

Absolutely not!

If anything, the media continues to prattle on, playing the role of PT Barnum, with the Internet as their circus of oddities.

The latest freakazoid exhibit for the media has been linked to violence. Between the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Conyers, Georgia, and the shootings attributed to white supremacist Benjamin Smith in Chicago, the media has been quick to point to the Internet as one of the supposed causes of these tragedies.

But between hate groups and web sites devoted to students who have a bone to pick with school life, the media has been quick to point out some of the other things that is supposedly wrong about the Internet. Online affairs, exhibitionist web cam sites, hackers, e-mail spam, electronic gambling, online auctions, escort services, each of which served as nothing more than ratings-grabbing chamber of horrors for these mudracking ringmasters.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the creation of MSNBC, the cable-based network supposedly dedicated to both news and the Internet. MSNBC was originally touted as "phase one" of the merger between television and computers; but after the first year of going online, it was clear that the NBC half wanted to grow out of that "phase" and go back to doing nothing but "news". They eliminated their only computer-related show - "The Site" - and put in its place rehashed news footages and recaps of their "Dateline NBC" series. Stuck in an endless world of JonBennet speculations and Monica Lewinsky gossip, MSNBC has turned into CNN-lite, but with more fluff and less real news. Oh, yes, they still mention the Internet, but if it isn’t for chicken little stories, then it is only in vague references to polls and e-mail responses.

That brings us to the popular show that MSNBC dropped.. "The Site" was produced by Ziff-Davis, the publishing company that provides a plethora of computer-related magazines. The people at Ziff-Davis turned that show into a 24-hour network of their own called ZDTV. ZDTV has since taken the role that MSNBC abandoned as the real source of news for computers and the Internet.

Yes, ZDTV also has the rare bout of chicken little speculation, but the folks at Ziff-Davis have also been one of the few groups who finally get the message that the Internet was designed for adults, not for kids. The difference, of course, is that the people at Ziff-Davis know how computers work. This is their bread and butter.

Now let’s get brutally honest here.. the media seemingly hasn’t yet gotten the point that the Internet is more than just some resource center for their ratings, but rather it is the medium that will - eventually - replace them.

It is one thing to report on the dangers that are out there in cyberspace. One of the key tenants of the media is to inform. But certainly not inform them to the point of hysteria. Yes, these sites are out there. They’ve been there because the Internet is more open than any other form of communication today. That is one of the burdens of having free speech, you have to deal with speech that you may fundamentally object to.

Worse yet, creating a hysteria INVITES the kind of response that is the antithesis to freedom - namely legislation and regulation.

In a recent study by The Freedom Forum in Vanderbilt University, thirty-five percent of the population surveyed said they would support government monitoring the media. I don’t know about you, but as one who has worked in the print media and now runs his own online talk show, this commentator is seriously concerned! If this study is at all accurate, then the members of the media could very well be contributing to their own demise.

Look folks, just like I said two years ago, when this transition is over the media will have a medium of communication that will be freer than they have ever known. But it can’t happen with members of the media constantly playing chicken little games. When that happens, we all lose out.

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