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The Internet as the cause

The October 20th issue of Newsweek had an article that illustrates a common failure in the journalist biz or, if not a failure, an error of commission.

The article is about the case of on-line columnist Matt Drudge. He is being sued for defamation of character by a couple that objected to Drudge reporting in his AOL-based column that there was wife-beating in their background. When challenged, Drudge issued a retraction of the report, but when Drudge refused to reveal the source of the original accusation, the aggrieved couple sued.

This column is not about what would seem to be just a normal case of the perils of a columnist believing everything he is told. Instead its about the tendency to make the Internet the focus of any story that might have some remote connection. In this case Newsweek subtitled the story "A Beltway libel suit could make Internet history" and they painted the case as some sort of a threat to freedom on the net.

According to Newsweek, AOL hired Drudge (and advertised having done so) and paid him for his column. This seems to bear more than a glancing resemblance to my own relationship to Network World. But if someone sued me & Network World over something I said in my column would Newsweek write about the challenge to the paper publishing biz?

Newsweek is not alone in being too quick to involve the Internet in a news story. In his column in the October 13th Washington Post John Schwartz told the story of Brian Poulsen, a 12 year old boy that had run away to join a man who had sent him a bus ticket. Initial reports said that the two had met through an "Internet chat room". This story was widely reported, generally with more than a touch of fear mongering about the impact of the Internet on us all. But as it later developed, the two had met on a telephone chat room and the Internet was not at all involved. The retractions were much harder to find than the original story.

What is it that makes the Internet an easy story? In part it's because it is 1/ new and 2/ technology. Many people are quite fearful of new technology. There is a bit of Luddite in too many of us. Playing the Internet card plays to their fears. But there seems to be more to the reaction than that.

One factor may be the speed at which the Internet came to dominate the mindscape. It was only three years ago that I was arguing in this column that the Internet was real and was not about to be replaced by something the telcos were going to drag in. (Internet Mythology, NWW May 1994) Look at us now!

But I think the biggest factor is the magic of it all. The Internet is this growing presence, with no one in control (and that no one could control). Born, it has been said, to withstand atomic attack (sort of like the cockroach) and beholden to no man. All too scary.

And too convenient. It is far easier for a reporter to put blame on the Internet than it is to actually find out what underlies the story. And too many reporters are taking the easy way out.

disclaimer: Anything as old as Harvard has demonstrated that it knows how to do change (unless its Plymouth Rock), but the above are my opinions.