Blame it on the Net

Walter Cronkite and Pierre Salinger could learn a thing or two from alt.conspiracy


Scott Rosenberg
November 13, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

pierre salinger, a former aide to President John F. Kennedy and ex-TV reporter, waves two crumpled pages before the world media — shocking new evidence, he claims, that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile.

Headlines fly — until the FBI declares that Salinger's papers, which he said he'd obtained from French intelligence sources, are identical to a document that has floated around on Internet newsgroups for months, where it has been widely debunked. (You can see it for yourself on the Web, too.)

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Who screwed up? Well, Salinger, certainly; he sounded thoroughly chagrined when CNN reporters showed him a copy of his "secret" letter that they'd found online: "Yes, that's it, that's the document. Where did you get it?"
Also to blame are the editors who transformed Salinger's announcement at a news conference in Cannes last Thursday into a world event, amplified by TV stations and newspapers like the San Francisco Examiner, which trumpeted the story on its front page Friday.

But when the news commentators got around to analyzing this sorry episode, where did their fingers point? At the bad old Internet, purveyor of gossip and lies.

The New York Times piece blamed "Cyber-Mice That Roar, Implausibly," as the headline of its Sunday Week in Review piece on the controversy put it. "Theorizing about plane crashes is nothing new, but it used to be called gossip," Timesman Matthew L. Wald wrote. "Now it takes the form of e-mail or Internet postings, and it has a new credibility."

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According to the Chicago Tribune's James Coates, L'affaire Salinger was "merely the latest outbreak of the disturbing new information-age phenomenon of bogus news ... America is awash in a growing and often disruptive avalanche of false information that takes on a life of its own in the electronic ether of the Internet, talk radio and voice mail until it becomes impervious to denial and debunking." Coates quotes a Northwestern University sociology professor, Bernard Beck: "People grasp for these false stories because they think the Internet can be trusted more than can the major institutions of America."

Look closely and you can see the cover-your-butt two-step. The real credibility problem here belongs not to the Internet, but rather to the old-fashioned media. When the Salinger text first surfaced in the teeming Usenet newsgroups last summer, observers pointed out inconsistencies in the language and military terminology used by the memo; they questioned its origins and its assumptions. On the Net, in other words, Salinger's "scoop" was old news — and not terribly plausible news at that.

Of course, there will always be conspiracy theorists who will latch on to such material and refuse to let go. But most reasonable readers who followed the discussion of this document dismissed it long ago — and would never have been blind-sided by Salinger's recycling of old, discredited clues. If there is a conspiracy or a "friendly-fire"-style explanation for the Flight 800 crash — and I'm certainly enough of a skeptic to allow at least for that remote possibility — Salinger's memo hardly provides the evidence to prove it.

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The people who failed the credibility test here were the mainstream reporters and editors who, rather than questioning Salinger's claims, rushed them on the air and onto their front pages. If they'd been more Net-savvy, maybe they'd have been better prepared. But of course the Internet is just a source of gossip, so why should real reporters waste their time learning their way around it?
If Wald, Coates and their media brethren were serious about examining this incident, they'd see that it's not an example of Internet-fueled "bogus news" but a classic instance of one of traditional journalism's weak spots: the reliance on official spokespeople and trusted individuals. The Flight 800 memo didn't warrant coverage back in August and September, when the Net was all aflutter over it; but once Salinger — former government official, ABC newsman and San Francisco Chronicle reporter — put his imprimatur on it, it became bona fide news.
Professional newspeople distrust the Internet, and there's nothing wrong with that — distrust ought to be their credo. But too many journalists have decided that the Net is the enemy of their profession, rather than simply another tool and source. Consider this recent comment by Walter Cronkite: "I'm very worried about the Internet. People get on there and pretend they're giving the news and have absolutely no ethical standards on which they're operating and no facilities, nor experience to do it. It's a very dangerous thing. I hope this shakes down in a little while." This head in the sand, hope-it-goes-away dismissal of the new medium leaves journalists ignorant — and vulnerable.
In the end, who's more responsible for the spread of misinformation, the Internet or the news media? Well, ask yourself how you first heard of Salinger's memo: was it from the Net, or from a TV broadcast? The sad truth is that the old media are far more efficient disseminators of "bogus news" than the new.

One great thing about the Internet as a news source is that the medium itself teaches wariness and cures gullibility among all but the most paranoid. Anyone who spends much time online learns to ask some basic journalistic questions — is this really new? who are the sources? — very quickly. This loss of innocence usually happens the first time a Net neophyte hears the plea of dying Craig Shergold or receives a dire warning about the Good Times virus and passes them on to friends -- only to learn the truth about these long-standing Net myths.

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The drumbeat of complaint about the Internet as a source of misinformation entirely misses the value of this process. One of the participants in the Usenet discussions of the Flight 800 memo signed off his postings with this quotation from "The X-Files'" Agent Scully: "The truth is out there. But so are lies." Sure, the Net allows kooks to post lies; it also teaches skepticism to anyone able to learn it. Among those most in need of a remedial course, it seems, are many of the world's professional journalists.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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