Journalism on the World Wide Web threatens the way it was"And that's the way it is."
For decades, broadcaster Walter Cronkite ended his nightly news reports with that signature signoff. Such an utterance belied the bygone belief that journalism should strive for objectivity. Lately, however, many reporters have shed the guise of objectivity, and the Internet has compounded this shift in our journalistic ideals in much the manner it has challenged traditional methods of broadcast.
In Cronkite's time, virtually all news was processed and filtered through an elaborate regimen of researchers and editors to assure that all of it retained the vanilla "truthfulness" held as the ultimate model. Thus, Time magazine, the nightly newscasters and their ilk could perpetuate their image as bastions of reliable information. We relied on them completely, in part, because there was no other source for our news.
Back then, reporting was just reporting and journalism was held to standards of so-called truth that are barely agreed upon anymore. Cronkite once said: "If people knew how I felt on an issue... I had failed in my mission." This sense of propriety has faded as the public's mistrust of the Fourth Estate has grown, a fact which has not escaped many up-and-coming newshounds.
Media mega-corps such as Time-Warner and NBC-multi-billlion dollar news corporations-no longer own the sole means of production and distribution. Today, virtually anyone who can type can put up a website. But what does this mean for journalism and reporting?
At best, such advances have allowed a wonderfully rich and subjective tapestry of human experience to emerge; at worst, they have enabled the rapid propagation of rumors and outright lies.
Many filters have been removed. The advent of desktop publishing more than a decade ago allowed writers to self-publish their product, and the Internet has given these same mavericks a potential audience of a hundred million souls. The flood of new voices is refreshing, to be sure, but as our sources of information have exploded, it's become increasingly difficult for consumers to know what's really going on.
In short, these so-called reporters no longer face down serious-faced editors of yore, who classically opined "too much speculation and opinion, tone it down."
Drop-out-turned-media savant-turned-talking head Matt Drudge marks the highs and lows of Way New Journalism, as some have touted the newest news movement. Eight years ago, D-average student Drudge moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune. Working in the gift shop at CBS, he started fishing memos out of the trash and posting them online.
One day, he got an email asking for a subscription, and the Drudge Report was born. Lacking bigwig contacts, White House insiders, and official press credentials, Drudge proceeded to break such mega-stories as the firing of CBS news anchor Connie Chung, Bob Dole's selection of Jack Kemp as running mate, and the expansion of the Paula Jones harassment suit investigation.
In fact, Drudge was the first to publicly name Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky as participants in alleged Oval Office affairs. But since last August, Drudge has found himself repeatedly in hot water. He reported-based on an anonymous source, as his reports often are-that certain Republicans were circulating a rumor that White House staffer Sidney Blumenthal had a history of spousal abuse. Within 24 hours, Drudge issued a retraction and publicly apologized to Blumenthal.
And in the past few weeks, the reports of a certain, apparently fictitious, semen-stained dress have been traced back to the Drudge Report.
Still, the real story here is that the web enabled an unaffiliated writer working out of a cluttered apartment in Hollywood to beat the national media on story after story by reporting unsubstantiated-yet-true stories. The fact that this method backfired should be no surprise.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of the press to publish statements about the conduct of public officials-even when false, as long as there is no complicity or malice in such publication. That hasn't stopped Big Media from attacking Drudge, calling him an "Internet gossip-monger," "an outrage," and "the nation's chief mischief maker." Could it be that they're angry that Drudge-who has repeatedly refused six-figure salary offers to write for the big boys-continues to beat them to the stories?
In the buzzing, blooming confusion that typifies media content in the age of the Internet, Drudge and the phenomenon surrounding him are not unique. Big stories these days are broken and made available within seconds. As John Katz put it in Wired, "The story mushrooms, sucking up everything around it and taking on a life and power of its own. We are confronted with more information than can possibly be lucid, coherent or even digestible." Not to mention reliable.
Cronkite's era seems staid and secure in retrospect. These days, journalism resembles the actions of an electronic mob as much as it does the work of responsible professionals, and we certainly need to be on the lookout for rampant sensationalism. Consumers are as responsible as content providers for not letting the new marketplace of ideas sink to the lowest common denominator. And that's the way it is.