The double-edged sword of the Web
A READER logging on as KellyB last week posted a comment on a Politico.com story covering the funeral of former White House spokesman Tony Snow: "Rest in peace, Tony. You were a kind, decent soul on this earth for too short a time. May God always watch over your family." But KellyB couldn't resist amending the gracious condolence with this: "Politico.com — The Official Water Carrier of Barack H. Obama's Campaign."
How cordial. After a decade of waiting for the first "Internet election," it's finally here, and we're adrift from all the old-media moorings. "Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one," the great critic A. J. Liebling wrote more than half a century ago. Today, of course, we're all press lords, or can be. But the "crowd-sourcing" of news cuts both ways. Like democracy itself, it can cleanse, correct and ennoble. Or it can coarsen, spread lies and degrade the national conversation.
Everything about the Web is double-edged. It's hard to believe, but YouTube wasn't even around in 2004. Now it (or other streamed video) is a godsend for anyone who wants to follow politics closely. But YouTube is also a pixilated guillotine for any public figures inclined to show a little humanity (that is, fallibility or a penchant for inconvenient truth-telling) when they step out of their house. Colin Powell told me recently that he's even had to put up with picture takers in the men's room.
Blogging is a good news/bad news story, too. Daily Kos held a convention last week in Texas full of self-congratulation. Like Thomas Paine and the ideological pamphleteers who provoked the American Revolution, bloggers help enliven and expand public debate. They are indispensable aggregators of political news.
But we're finding this works better for keeping on top of daily flaps than for learning genuinely new information. Bloggers rarely pick up the phone or go interview the middle-level bureaucrats who know the good stuff. It's a lot easier to chew over breaking stories and bash old media. Where do they get the information with which to bash? Often from, ahem, newspapers.
Which are shrivelling this year. Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive. Anyone can sit at home pontificating in PJs (I've done it myself), but it costs nearly $1.5 million a year for a bureau in Baghdad. As newspapers lay off hundreds of reporters in the face of assaults on their classified advertising by the likes of Craigslist, who will actually dig for the news? A few sites (e.g., TalkingPointsMemo.com) are getting into the game. But eventually, Google and other search engines will have to form consortiums to subsidize the gathering of news. Otherwise there won't be anything worth searching for.
Print is moving rapidly in exactly the wrong direction. Take Sam Zell, new owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. In the name of "productivity," he wants print reporters to file a lot more stories that are much shorter. Just about the only comparative advantage print journalism retains is in well-reported stories too long to be comfortably read online.
Two ironies of the new age: the Netroots demand transparency from everyone except themselves. They still usually prefer to shoot from behind a rock of anonymity. That way KellyB doesn't have to defend her (or his) unfair rap against Politico.com. Until this changes and the culture of the Web demands that people identify themselves, online political power will not extend beyond small-donor fund-raising (a hugely positive development this year). That's because members of Congress respond only to e-mails with names and addresses from their districts.
The second irony is that people often prefer rumours to facts. They so distrust the mainstream media that they may believe, say, lies about Obama's being a Muslim that reach their IN box from their cousin's friend's brother, whose nephew got it from his mother-in-law, who can't recall where it came from in the first place, over the careful reporting of a reputable news outlet.
But how to explain the venom of so many comment sections and e-mails? Like senior citizens suffering from dementia, Web users often fall prey to "disinhibition"— the lack of a filter for their most brutal thoughts. In the campaign, this takes the form of an umbrage explosion, where a day rarely passes without someone's taking grave offence over something.
In the pre-Web era, this was less of a problem. The New Yorker cover satirically depicting Obama as a flag-burning Muslim and Michelle as a gun-toting radical would have been seen by only a few hundred thousand subscribers, almost all of whom would have gotten the joke. Instead, in today's 24/7 news cycle, it was seen by tens of millions of people. It was the knowledge of such a big audience for the cartoon-other Americans who "wouldn't understand" — that fuelled the over-the-top fury of the Obama supporters. You can't erase a powerful image from someone's mind any more than you can unring a bell.
One would have hoped that the presence of millions of little Press lords on the Web would mean a much greater range of stories. Instead, Web traffic closely tracks the latest cable obsession. Even last week's spectre of bank runs for the first time since the 1930s couldn't shift the focus from umbrage to substance. For two days, the Obama-New Yorker flap (and yes, I covered it, too) obliterated everything else in the media universe.
The good news for Obama (or for John McCain when he makes a gaffe) is that all these weekly flaps quickly pass. When flaps came monthly or quarterly in a campaign, they lingered in the system. Today's media feeding frenzies are the equivalent of junk food, leaving everyone immediately hungry again. The immediacy and ubiquity of the Web intensifies the binge-and-purge cycle, but it also makes it commonplace. Most voters don't notice or remember for long.
The umbrage and venom and brilliant crowd-sourced insights are all preserved forever in archives, but there's too much of it for anyone to track. By the end of this first Internet campaign, we'll know everything. And nothing.
Jonathan Alter is a Newsweek columnist
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