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Turner, Richard. When rumors make news. In Newsweek Dec 30 1996, v128,
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.