Piling on "push"
Media coverage of new technologies is always governed by an inexorable cycle: First comes the hyping, then comes the trashing. Of late, the Net has so accelerated this cycle that the trashing kicks in well before the hype has stopped -- sometimes creating a conflict of views that looks suspiciously like genuine debate.
Consider the recent spate of coverage devoted to "push media" -- technologies that aid publishers in sending information to you across the Net rather than waiting for you to come and get it ("pull"). As companies like Pointcast, Marimba's Castanet, Backweb, Intermind and others flock to seize "push" market-share, they have been feted by the business press, welcomed by media companies who hope "push" will help them make money, even lauded by Wired magazine as "the radical future of media beyond the Web."
Before any of these companies could even put any of this coverage onto wall plaques or begin planning a stock offering, a ferocious counterassault against "push" kicked in, including critiques and satires, all culminating in a one-two punch from the New York Times this week. First, Sunday Magazine columnist James Gleick, noting that "pull" is what attracts people to the Web in the first place, announced that "the failure of push is preordained." Then in Monday's Times Business section, Digital Commerce columnist Denise Caruso explained "how I came to hate push technology."
Both pieces are thoughtful, rational looks at the downside of push: information overload, "interruption and salesmanship." "Shoving [information] down our throats does not increase our capacity for information," writes Caruso. "If anything, it engages our gag reflexes."
Of course, if you want to read these stories you must hie yourself to the New York Times Web site and look for them (or do something even more radical, like go to the library). If you're already a "push" consumer, picking your news feed from Pointcast offerings like Reuters, CNN and Wired News, you might never hear this side of the argument.
March 27, 1997
CDA coverage slow on the draw
Here are most of the relevant facts you could glean from the instant online coverage of yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the Communications Decency Act:
- The hearing lasted 70 minutes -- 10 longer than is typical.
- The justices are no slouches -- they actually read and understood the detailed decision produced last summer by a Philadelphia appeals court that the CDA is unconstitutional.
- Justice Antonin Scalia, the only judge who sounded sympathetic to the government's case in defense of the CDA, owns a computer.
But if you wanted to hear more than a handful of sound-bites from the debate, or to get a sense of what's actually going to happen come June or July, when the Supreme Court's final decision on the matter will be delivered, you were out of luck.
Of course, it's never too safe to predict what nine cantankerous, independent jurists are going to decide. Most sites didn't even try to handicap the arguments. ZDNet, for instance, painted the proceedings as a shootout --"High noon at Supreme Court as sides stage final CDA duel," its headline read -- but didn't tell us who bit the dust.
When in doubt, you can always root for your own team. That's what some news sites friendly to the cause of Internet free speech did. The excitable folks over at the Netly News reported that the Supreme Court justices had "pummeled" the government's lawyers. Wired News took a slightly more sober approach, reporting that the justices "took Clinton administration lawyers to task" and "grilled" them. Late in the day it offered a more in-depth analysis with the headline, "Net Decency Law Looks Like Dead Meat." C|Net's News.com site provided the most thorough and frequently updated coverage on the Web, but even its story didn't provide nearly the level of detail an interested reader would want.
The Web is an ideal medium for timely, thorough coverage of complex legal controversies; there's no space limit and awfully little production delay. The CDA arguments were vital to the future of the Web, and online readers have a natural interest in this story. But you wouldn't know that from yesterday's coverage. And if you have to wait 10 or 12 hours for a good report on the Web, you might just as well wait for your newspaper to be delivered.
March 20, 1997
You link 'em, we break 'em
Accuracy. Context. That's what the professional media have to offer us in the age of the anarchic Net, right? But it's precisely in their coverage of the Net itself that our newspapers and TV networks often fall down on the job.
It's not only the big stories, like Time's infamous "Cyberporn" cover; it's also the everyday news stories and features that sap one's confidence in the quality of coverage.
This week's case in point is a Washington Post story, from Monday, headlined "Interfacing Reality: The Net Isn't Living Up to Its Promise." It's a rambling series of complaints by staff writer Margot Williams about the clumsiness of e-mail, the slowness of the Web and the unreliability of search engines, all supporting the thesis that "the Internet still isn't ready for prime time or the workplace."
Williams relies on a handful of anecdotal beefs to buttress definitive conclusions about the Net's lack of value. For instance, she cites her own "inability to get into the office mailbox from home, as our remote access setup excludes Macintosh log-ins" as if it were a problem of the Internet itself and not the result of some poor decision on the part of a Washington Post exec. Yet this snafu becomes evidence for Williams to conclude that "the Internet is not yet a dependable, timely source of public information."
The kicker here, though, is the article's complaint that search engines serve up too many outdated, broken links: "Sites that are updated daily (http://www.washingtonpost.com, for example) don't keep old information hanging around. But the search engine indexes seem to keep the pointers there forever."
Search engines could certainly be more up-to-date, no argument there. But many "sites that are updated daily" (http://www.salonmagazine.com, for example) are courteous enough to keep their articles online so that links keep working. "Keeping old information hanging around" is precisely what the Web was designed for.
Williams clinches her case against the Net by searching for stories by one of her Washington Post colleagues. Half the links are broken, "File Not Found." QED: The Net is no good.
Too bad the explanation for those bad links wasn't out on the Net but right in the reporter's own newsroom. Williams doesn't let her readers in on the inconvenient fact that the Washington Post broke those links itself. Apparently preparing to charge money for access to older articles, the Post recently took down all the archives it had built up on its Web site since its June 1996 launch.
So with one hand, the Post makes a mess of all the links that other Web sites have gradually built to its own stories -- and with the other, it uses that mess to demonstrate the hopeless unreliability of the Internet.
Here's a link to Williams' story. It should be good for at least another week or two.
March 13, 1997
"60 Minutes": Expunge the Net now!
Now that the Web has stepped center-stage as a news medium -- thanks to the Dallas Morning News, which broke its Timothy McVeigh confession story on its Web site last week -- the barrage of attacks on Web journalism's credibility can only escalate. Here are two recent examples.
Last Sunday's "60 Minutes" brought its viewers a shocking exposi of the Internet: It turns out that the Net, the Web and particularly Usenet news groups are full of unsubstantiated "facts," opinions, rumors and even lies. Stop the presses!
Correspondent Lesley Stahl took a whirlwind Net tour with Internet World editor Andrew Kantor, using search engines to find dubious reports emanating from the likes of J. Orlin Grabbe, a Reno, Nev.-based conspiracy theorist. It seems that wackos like Grabbe can use the Net to "instantly" reach 20 million people. (CBS doesn't do its own credibility any favors by omitting the word "potential" before that 20 million figure, suggesting that Grabbe and his ilk have an automatic mass audience rather than an infinitesimal sliver of total Net traffic.)
"Forgery, fakery, falsehoods -- they're everywhere on the Internet!" Stahl concludes. "And rumors are so rampant that cyberspace is becoming a dangerous place, especially for corporate America."
Of course, tabloid TV is hard to top for fakery, and you can find plenty of falsehoods on any newsstand (checked out the Weekly World News lately?). The Net is being singled out for demonization because anyone can use it to promote their points of view -- whereas on TV only CBS and its licensed competitors are allowed to do the same.
Thus this trumped-up "scoop" about the Net, which conveniently serves the TV networks' own interests. The story is in fact more likely to be valuable to gullible professional journalists like Pierre Salinger than to the general public, which has already learned not to trust the media and has every reason to carry that healthy skepticism online.
"60 Minutes" could have used its precious public time to help its viewers understand the spectrum of online credibility and their own role as consumers of the news in evaluating what they hear -- a perspective Kantor gamely tried to offer. Instead, Stahl's outrage left the clear suggestion that we need new laws to protect the public from what the public itself says on the Net: "How is a kid supposed to discern what's true and not true?" Digging through the misinformation on Usenet, Stahl asks, "Shouldn't this be expunged? ... It's wrong. It's inaccurate, it's irresponsible. It is spreading fear and suspicion of the government."
Meanwhile, even professional journalists on the Web aren't faring much better in their treatment by their offline colleagues. The latest salvo comes from the Los Angeles Times, where reporter Julie Pitta slammed CNet's News.com site for running a scoop about a merger between Netscape and Novell that "wasn't true." Trouble is, as CNet editor Jai Singh was quick to argue, CNet never said that the merger actually happened; its report simply noted that Novell had been identified as a takeover target by analysts at Forrester research.
Pitta wound up using her own misrepresentation of CNet's "scoop" as the hook for a an article-length attack on online technology news operations: "In the zeal for scoring scoops, journalistic ethics are falling by the wayside." As if such behavior were unknown in the print world -- where the L.A. Times distorted this very story in its quest for a good lead.
Someday soon, hopefully, everyone will wake up and realize that journalism can be trustworthy or terrible, and it can be online or offline -- and anyone who attempts to correlate the two characteristics probably has an ax to grind.