"Other media that do not share newspaper standards are
recasting the definitions of news. But we do not have to be pulled along,"
she warned. "The newest news dispenser, the runaway Internet, makes a
journalist out of anybody who has a modem. It values speed and
sensationalism above accuracy. New media will not accept our standards. We
are foolish to treat them as if they have."
standards of the "runaway Internet" have been invoked again and again in
TV roundtables and journalism conferences, ever since Matt Drudge reported
in January that Newsweek had killed a story about the president and Monica
The recurring theme spelled out in the ensuing
news coverage and discussion transcripts is that the newfangled Net is
luring traditional journalism into the ethical abyss.
Washington Post's Tom Shales called it "the new electronic Tower of
Babel." The Freedom Forum and the Columbia Journalism Review convened
special conferences about "the speed of cyberspace." Los Angeles Times
media critic David Shaw wrote about how the "speed of reporting via the
Web tests accuracy and ethics."
"If newspapers want to draw
large numbers of visitors to their sites so they can charge advertisers
accordingly, they have to compete with other sites that often have much
lower -- or no -- journalistic standards," Shaw wrote in his March 31
article. "Speed is the name of the Internet game, and as journalists in
every medium have long known, speed is often the enemy of accuracy."
Actually, the most popular news sites have perfectly normal
standards (the top 10 in April include ZDNet.com, Pathfinder.com,
MSNBC.com, ESPN.com, SNAP.com and CNN.com, according to ratings agency
Media Metrix). And real-time journalism has been successfully practiced
for most this century by wire services and broadcasters. In fact, the
biggest online gaffes during the Lewinsky outbreak were articles the Wall
Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News published -- then retracted --
from their Web sites.
For Web journalism veterans, Shaw's
half-informed, vaguely condescending tone has been the norm whenever the
Old Media has covered the new over the past five years. Now, using Matt
Drudge as the lone whipping boy, industry stalwarts continue to deliver
high-sounding and factually challenged lectures about ethics.
"There are quite
literally so many arrogant idiots covering the Internet for traditional
media," wrote new media freelancer Brooke Shelby Biggs, in a July 1997
Hotwired column attacking Shaw's infamous five-part series about the
Internet last June. "That if I wrote about them and them alone, I could
fill up my 1,000-word space daily by citing their inaccuracies, misleading
statements, and fear-driven bias and paranoia one by one."
|'After years of seeing mainstream articles
exaggerating the dangers of cyberporn, hackers and hate
groups, Net journalists jump at the chance to rub the Old
Media's noses in its own high-profile mistakes…'
After years of seeing mainstream articles exaggerating the
dangers of cyberporn, hackers and hate groups, Net journalists jump at the
chance to rub the Old Media's noses in its own high-profile mistakes, such
as Stephen Glass's fabrication about hackers for The New Republic, and
AP-triggered reports on ABC and Reuters that Bob Hope had died.
"If an online publication of note had succumbed to a
similarly wacky fraud in the offline world," wrote Salon's Scott Rosenberg, after the Glass debacle. "Say, if
News.com or Feed (or Salon) had published a story about bribery at some
federal regulatory agency that turned out not to exist -- you can well
imagine the outcry. There! Proof that Web journalism has no standards!"
Forbes Digital Tool Editor Adam Penenberg, the online
journalist who exposed Glass's fabrications, hoped his debunking would
help change the tenor of articles about the Web.
strongly that we've been dissed by traditional media so often, maybe this
whole incident will show that we deserve some respect," Penenberg told Wired News. "We've always had to be better than print
because if we weren't, then people would say, 'Well, that's the Internet,
can't trust it.'"
Many on both sides
attribute much of the cultural gap to the simple fact that many newsrooms
across America still aren't plugged into the Web. But the last two years
have seen an increase in newsroom usage, and a veritable explosion in
online versions of major newspapers and broadcasters.
now that anybody with a Web site and fifty bucks can be a
communicator, we don't know how to distinguish ourselves from
our new, pseudo competitors. Instead, all too often we sadly
try to imitate them." -- Tom Rosenstiel
K. Harral, ombudsman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said his paper has
been ahead of most in covering the Internet in part because it has been
publishing an electronic edition called StarText for 15 years.
"But the coverage has become more sophisticated and grown in
quantity as we are able to allow more people access to it," Harral said.
"I'm still amazed at the number of people in my profession who do not know
how to use the Internet or who are not connected to it at least at home if
they cannot be connected at work."
Some of today's best
coverage of the Internet comes from the organizations who have invested
the most in their online activities: the Wall Street Journal, The New York
Times and Knight-Ridder.
"Certainly, U.S. newspapers and
magazines have come a long way over the last two years, particularly by
hiring reporters who have a deeper understanding of the Internet,"
Rosenberg wrote in Salon.
There are other factors besides
inexperience and Matt Drudge's high-profile blunders contributing to the
view of reporting on the Net. Plummeting public confidence, escalating
celebrity coverage, and fear of the technological unknown have fostered "a
crisis of conviction, a philosophical collapse in the belief in the
purpose of journalism and the meaning of news," according to Tom
Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Project for Excellence
in Journalism, (http://www.journalism.org) and a media critic for MSNBC
"We were confident about journalism
when we controlled who published," Rosenstiel told a Columbia Journalism
Review forum last December. "But now that anybody with a Web
site and fifty bucks can be a communicator, we don't know how to
distinguish ourselves from our new, pseudo competitors. Instead, all too
often we sadly try to imitate them."
The tension between
those who once "controlled" publishing and the new generation of modem
pamphleteers frequently escalates into what sounds like a pitched battle
between the "elitists" and the "populists."
Such was the scene
when Drudge confronted the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. June. Drudge
played the part of a modern-day Horace Greeley, too underprivileged to
belong to the Beltway, but happily dancing through the back door thanks to
the throwback, democratic virtues of the revolutionary new medium.
|"Mainstream journalism is shot through with
legions of tired, lazy hacks that can't report or write their
way through a 500-word story. So all this talk of 'lower
standards' for online and 'higher standards' for traditional
journalism is a diversion." -- Brock Meeks
"We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small
voices," Drudge gushed. "Now, with a modem, anyone can follow the world
and report on the world -- no middle man, no big brother."
Moderator and club President Doug Harbrecht, the Washington
bureau chief of Business Week, represented the elitist class with
questions such as, "Do you think journalists should have any minimum
educational requirements?", "Does populism equal consistently good
journalism?", and finally, "Aren't you coarsening the public discourse?"
Though many Net journalists are clearly tired of defending
Drudge, the sentiments he provokes in the Old Media are enough to activate
the New Media's itchy trigger fingers.
"To be a journalist
in this country, you don't have to pass a test; you don't have to get a
license," snarled MSNBC columnist Brock N. Meeks in a February column on
Drudge. "Mainstream journalism is shot through with legions of tired, lazy
hacks that can't report or write their way through a 500-word story. So
all this talk of 'lower standards' for online and 'higher standards' for
traditional journalism is a diversion."
It's a diversion
that shows signs of ending. Good Web reporters like Meeks are gravitating
from hellraising one-man sites, like his CyberWire Dispatch, to giant
media companies like MSNBC. As the public triples its
use of the Internet as a source for news, so too do journalists use it
more as a research tool, learning along the way how to distinguish the
good sites from the bad. And as the major media companies dive into online
publishing, the likes of Drudge and his lesser-known rivals are being
decisively out-visited by ABC.com, CBS Now, USATODAY.com and CNET.com.
"It's past time to retire the Internet as a scapegoat for
journalistic ills," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich on June 10.
"It's a medium, not a message, and it can be used as irresponsibly or as
honorably as a printing press or a TV network can."
the feistier words of Meeks, "Mainstream journalists may engage in
thumb-sucking sessions that target Drudge as the bad boy of Internet
reporting. But in the end, it rests with the reader to sort through what
is valid journalism and what is trash."
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