The Web Made Me Do It

Does the Internet really have a uniquely devilish ability to distort the news? Not really. The medium can be messy, but it's no better or worse that the reporters who use it.

Velocity was the key word in the outraged debate over the media's coverage of the sexual allegations against President Bill Clinton. Critics complained that reporters, driven by the competitive backdraft of the new media--meaning the Internet, of course, but also the three cable-news channels--shattered the ethics barrier in their manic pursuit of the story. The press moved "too fast from the bullet to the atom bomb," said Joan Konner, publisher of The Columbia Journalism Review. "The digital age does not respect contemplation," said James M. Naughton, former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter whose scoop was pre-empted when Matt Drudge reported it on his Web site, the Drudge Report, weighed in, too, saying that Drudge "disposes of all the journalistic conventions and simply recycles the most sensational gossip that's going around."

The critics were right on some points. A journalistic echo effect did take over, as many reporters blindly reported what other reporters had dug up--never mind whether they had checked the details themselves. And the Internet and television's constant need to be fed did speed up the news cycle, with reporters churning out stories at a furious pace that created cycles within cycles. For instance, The Dallas Morning News published on its Web site and in its paper editions an article about the President and Monica Lewinsky that it retracted in a matter of hours. The next day, The Morning News republished its article--with modifications--after its source changed his statements. Several days later, The Wall Street Journal's interactive edition blared the news that Bayani Nelvis, a White House steward, had told a grand jury he caught Clinton and Lewinsky alone together. As controversy erupted--Nelvis's lawyer called the report "absolutely false and irresponsible"--the paper's print edition backpedaled.

The turbulence made everyone a little woozy, but critics overstated the case when they heaped blame on the new media. After all, the biggest miscues, like The Morning News's yo-yo and a similar goof by ABC News, involved "old media" that went with a story too soon. Matt Drudge's contribution was straightforward and defensible: he reported, accurately, that Newsweek's editors, worried about the explosive nature of Isikoff's original article on the sex charges, had decided to delay it.

So why was the criticism so intense? Perhaps because the new media exposed a wound. The real sin was that they laid bare, for all to see, how news is made. Like the preparation of sausage and legislation, the process can be ugly. Facts, rumors and hunches are collected and set down in the jigsaw puzzle of narrative. Editors and reporters move the pieces around to see if they form a pattern. Meanwhile, the competition is doing the same. The first organization to complete the puzzle wins the scoops and the readers.

When the deadline whistle howls, things get messy. But the critics seem to think the Internet has an especially demonic power to distort; Tom Shales of The Washington Post called it "the new electronic Tower of Babel." But technology is neutral. It makes as much sense to blame modems and the Internet for distorting the spread of news as it does to blame telephones. In reality, the Internet is a technological tool with the same good and bad aspects as any other. Among its positive uses, for reporters and readers alike, is its role as a tip sheet and rapid-transmission medium. In the hectic days after the scandal broke, reporters at every newsroom in the country surfed Web sites, as did droves of readers. Drudge himself maintains an e-mail list that allows him to zap his stories directly to subscribers, many of whom are journalists who don't always disdain what he has to say.

Among news consumers, details of the scandal spread like an algae bloom, as devotees of the story e-mailed breaking news stories to their comrades and posted their own messages on newsgroups like alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater. The MSNBC News Web site recorded a nearly 300 percent increase in daily hits. Thanks to the Web, regional papers like The Dallas Morning News were in a position to compete in real time with print journalism's front four: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.

The forces that compel journalists to break news at hyperspeed may sound futuristic, but actually they hark back to the speediest time in American journalism: the turn of the century. In New York in 1900, there were at least 65 daily newspapers (counting the vital ethnic press), whose reporters scrambled to match and beat the competition. The new technology of the telephone, which many reporters disparaged when it was introduced (because it de-emphasized legwork), became as indispensable as the shorthand pad. Whenever the news cycle demanded it, dailies would publish "extra" editions (similar to the instant "extras" that some news organizations now publish on the Web). The variety offered by the newsstand in those times almost approached that of the Web today. Back then, New Yorkers could choose the demagogic fulminations of William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, the prim institutional voice of Adolph Ochs's Times and papers representing all points in between. Determining the truth value of stories was left up to readers and editors. Somehow the Republic survived that info-glut.

The ethics of early journalists were often shaky, but the hurly-burly also brought vigor to reporting. H.L. Mencken, worshiped by many as a newspaper god, writes with glee in his memoirs of how he and a reporter for a competing Baltimore paper made up stories out of whole cloth. Their target was a reporter who covered their beat for the city's third leading daily and who refused to pool his reporting. The recalcitrant reporter finally joined the pool after his editors bawled him out for missing the malarkey that Mencken and his pal were publishing. To be sure, the old days are overromanticized in plays like "The Front Page," but damned if Matt Drudge's jumping the gun on Isikoff's scoop didn't sound like Hildy Johnson pulling a fast one on Walter Burns.

In the world of electronic commerce, you hear a lot about "disintermediation"--the elbowing out of middlemen and distributors by the Web, which directly connects manufacturers with consumers. It is premature to herald the disintermediation of the news business by Web independents who leapfrog editors, libel attorneys and conventional journalistic standards. But the example of Drudge shows that anybody who has an Internet connection and something original to say can reach a global audience. Sensing this disintermediation in the works, the old media have expanded their profile on the Web. In addition to the Newsweek extra, practically every big daily, newsmagazine and TV network added a "Clinton Crisis" page to their Web sites.

Disintermediation might sound like a prescription for an orgy of libel, but so far most of the alleged libel in the online world has centered on financial advice. The Web--like old media--appears to be self-policing: the very velocity that spreads untruths on the Web also brings instant accountability. As anyone who works on the Web knows, readers spank you via e-mail the moment you make an error.

The success of Matt Drudge also indicates that readers hunger for reporting that hasn't had the life pecked out of it by editors and lawyers who identify too strongly with the bow-tie-and-braces brigade that runs the Government and corporate America. As Drudge has repeatedly said, the sexcapade scandal was right under the noses of the Washington news establishment for months and months. Why was Isikoff the only reporter chasing it?

Ethical standards are important, but we should never ignore the price we pay for them. Listen to the muckraker Lincoln Steffens, who rebelled at the stylistic straitjacket that The New York Evening Post forced him to wear in 1892. "Reporters were to report the news . . . without prejudice, color and without style," he complained. "Humor or any sign of personality in our reports was caught, rebuked and, in time, suppressed." Instead of bemoaning the rise of cheeky Web characters, we should welcome them for what they are--new voices that enliven journalism.

No endorsement of new media should be unqualified. Drudge does play things fast and loose. He now faces a libel suit filed by the White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, stemming from Drudge's report that "court records" said that Blumenthal beat his wife. No such court records exist. Although Drudge withdrew the column and apologized, Blumenthal is continuing the suit against Drudge and his distributor, America Online.

Already, electronic commerce mavens are talking about "reintermediation," in which a new breed of Web middleman will rise to make sense out of the chaos wrought by disintermediation. As the technology of the Web evolves, Internet devices will become as ubiquitous as telephones. Every newspaper will have the potential to break news as fast as a television station. Every television station will have the potential to become a newspaper. But people will still only have 24 hours a day to consume news. After the novelty wears off, most readers of the news on the Web will depend on Web reintermediators to dispense journalism of dependable accuracy, just the way they turn to dependable newspapers and networks today for scrupulous reporting. That's not to say that reckless journalists will vanish from the Web. Just like the supermarket tabloids, they'll find their markets. But if we're half as sophisticated as were big-city newspaper readers early in this century, we'll quickly figure out the difference, velocity and all, between excess and excellence.

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