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Turner, Richard. When rumors make news. In Newsweek Dec 30 1996, v128,
     n27, p72(1). 


Public-service warning: The Internet is not a news service. Read      
what's there with care, and be your own editor.                       
                                                                      
HE WEARS A TRENCH coat. He worked for Kennedy. His image, with the    
Eiffel Tower in the background and the ABC logo in the corner, exudes 
a sense of legitimacy. This is the familiar medium, the thing we're   
supposed to trust. So when former ABC news correspondent Pierre       
Salinger breathlessly announced last month that he had evidence that  
TWA Flight 800 was felled by a friendly-fire U.S. missile, the story  
had enough credibility to resurface in the "mainstream" press, where  
it had briefly appeared two months before.                            
                                                                      
For most people, this episode played out as embarrassing, a little    
bit sad, a little bit Brinkley-esque. But inhabitants of cyberspace   
were less compassionate. To them, this was yet another sign of        
establishment cluelessness about the Internet. They witheringly       
pointed out that the same document Salinger referred to had been on   
the World Wide Web, posted for all to see, for months. "Well, Pierre, 
if you'd get a little Net-savvy, you'd figure it out," sniffed one    
Web site, conspire.com, which concluded: "Learn to surf, Dude."       
                                                                      
There they go again, the denizens of the "old" media and the Netizens 
of the new. Their mutual distrust colors a debate which really ought  
not to be so supercharged. Mainstream-media watchdogs view the loopy  
Salinger story as yet another sign that the Net is a giant, churning  
rumor pit, because the friendly-fire information resided there. The   
technophiles think they're under attack by a punditocracy afraid to   
give up control.                                                      
                                                                      
And so there was similar fretting from both sides when a slightly     
overreaching story in the San Jose Mercury News-- which appeared to   
say that CIA-sanctioned cocaine sales launched the crack              
epidemic-took on momentum, fed by the Net. The tale became holy writ  
to many, especially in the black community. The Mercury was blasted   
for how its Web version of the story helped spread and distort it.    
                                                                      
We don't mind mentioning these things, or the alien autopsies, or the 
United Nations plot with the black helicopters. But there are other   
examples of "news" floating around the Internet that we won't         
articulate, like the famous Republican politician said to have been   
involved in a homosexuality scandal some years back. Why won't we put 
it in the magazine? Well, short of actually investigating it, we'll   
rely on the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran a story saying there's 
no evidence that it's true. It's part of the "legitimate" press, and  
we fancy that we are, too.                                            
                                                                      
This is very civic-minded of us, and, of course, very pompous. Who    
are we to decide? Media mandarins, determining from on high what      
people can and can't know. This is the view of the apostles of        
cyber-nirvana. To them, the Net is a means for regular people to      
assert their rights against the old order of top-down windbags.       
                                                                      
All of this obscures the obvious fact that the Net is a means of      
communication, not a news service. Everybody who's spent five minutes 
there knows it's full of self-indulgent rantings, junior-highschool   
feuding-and porno. Just because something's on the Net doesn't give   
it gravitas. The TWA friendly-fire story, before it hit the Internet, 
actually showed up on CBS's local TV station in New York just after   
the crash. But CBS network news didn't pick up on it, and this is the 
point: with so much information out there today, people have to know  
whom to trust. For better or worse, this trust still resides in some  
TV news organizations and a handful of newspapers and magazines-many  
of them controlled by family members willing to tolerate flattish     
stock prices in return for some high-minded and corny ideal that      
their stories should try to tell the truth. They set the agenda for   
most other news. And readers by now know when they browse the         
newsstand that there's a difference between The New York Times and    
Weekly World News.                                                    
                                                                      
For those who aren't waving a banner for one side or the other-who    
believe that the Net is important but doubt its utopian qualities-the 
debate about news pollution on the Net is just another reminder that  
citizens have to pick through their news as carefully as cats. "You   
can't scroll through the Net uncritically," says high-tech attorney   
Michael Godwin. "You have to be your own editor. That's called being  
an adult in an information society." And that still means listening   
to guys in trench coats, even if they sometimes get it wrong.         
                                                                      
COPYRIGHT 1996 Newsweek Inc.