InfoShok: Information Media

The Dream of Poor Bazin

Jerry Stratton

What if the Three Musketeers were journalists in Washington, DC? What if journalists were swashbuckling, swaggering, hard-drinking warriors of truth? Find out in Jerry Stratton’s The Dream of Poor Bazin.

  1. Guerilla Semiotics
  2. InfoShok
  3. The Internet Library Today

Anyone who wasn’t on IRC that night missed one hell of a show. We had a guy 2 blocks away with a scanner. Knew that he surrendered 5 minutes before ABC did.--Barry Luckett (?)

Can the traditional news services adapt to the information age? Imagine this: a news reporter “on the scene”, interviewing a politician. Over her headset she gets a list of questions that her viewers have sent in from their info-TV. Her ratings will depend on how well she can extract answers from the politician. Or a politician holding a “town meeting” on the net, taking questions directly from the voters, none of whom get a busy signal. Of course, aides will see the questions first, and as Fasteddie says, some questions just won’t get through. But unlike talk shows, everyone will be able to see, if they desire, which questions were asked and which questions were ignored. When politicians venture onto the net, will they succumb to the net’s desire for information?

We may well see, in the future, “Frequently Asked Questions” files about each of our representatives.

Or can you imagine logging in to the space shuttle and looking into the cockpit? Asking questions of the crew members? Looking out the shuttle windows? Two out of three isn’t bad: the first two are already there. NASA brought the space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts on-line Thursday, March 2, 1995, and “the technology is there” for the third. (?)

There are already a number of news sources on the infobahn. Various political activists provide monthly collections of news clippings, from TreeFree EcoPaper’s Hemp News to the National Rifle Association’s Armed Citizen. Palo Alto’s Palo Alto Weekly is on the Web, and award-winning journalist Brock Meeks publishes CyberWire Dispatch. These don’t come anywhere near replacing newspapers and the nightly news.

This comes a little closer: during the famous O.J. Simpson jeep run, a couple of Los Angelenos sat at their computer with a police scanner and typed the radio reports onto the net as fast as they came through. They did so on what’s called an ‘IRC’, or Internet Relay Chat. An IRC allows a large group of people to get together and chat in real time. (!) On this particular IRC on this particular day, however, most of them sat and ‘listened’ to the police report come off the net. No doubt a few of them traded jokes as it was happening, just as the rest of the country would the next day.

In other cases, individuals report on discrepancies in news reporting around the country. For example, I live in California, but happened to be in Michigan during the final vote on the crime bill--the one that included the ‘ugly weapons’ ban. A certain Michigan congressman stepped down from his NRA post, saying that, while the assault weapons ban was horrendous and against the spirit and letter of the second amendment, he was going to have to vote for it in order to get the rest of the crime bill through. In the rest of the country, however, it was reported instead that the congressman had rebuked the NRA in order to vote for the assault weapons ban. I would have reported the difference myself, but I didn’t have to. People in Michigan had already noted the discrepancy between what had really happened and what their friends in the rest of the country had heard from their news sources.

The major news services haven’t even begun to take advantage of what the infobahn offers, and I don’t think they want to. For example, a number of news providers provide news over Usenet discussion groups--Clarinet and Americast, for example--and this is certainly a start. But they don’t take advantage at all of the main point of Usenet, which is, discussion. I can’t reply to a Los Angeles Times article on cocaine and expect the staff writer to take part in the discussion. In fact, last I checked, I couldn’t reply to the articles at all--the newsfeed is one way, which is no better than a newspaper or radio and harder on the eyes.

Of course, given the way many newspaper articles are written today--simply taking press releases and re-wording them--it is very possible that staff writers don’t want to have to defend their articles; if it comes to them actually having to provide sources and back up their claims, they’ll need to do some real research before they write anything, and they’ll be less able to twist facts to support their (or their editors’) particular ideology. Netizens have their own ideology as well, but they either back it up or go down in flames.

Interestingly, Clarinews doesn’t want anyone even mentioning them on the net. I once replied to a clarinet article, quoting three lines from the article, and posted the reply to talk.politics.guns; I received a long message about copyright violations. I told them to fuck off, and got an apology. Even our twisted copyright law doesn’t forbid commenting on statements that someone else makes. I assume that they haven’t changed their policy of intimidating people, however. They don’t like discussion. It invalidates the entire concept of the newspaper paradigm that they are following.

I’m not quite sure how they’re going to get around the need for discussion. Eventually, they’ll have to provide room for discussion, or the Usenet community will create the discussion groups on their own, on their own terms, and instead of clarinet.news.la-times.discussion, we’ll have alt.la-times.die.die.die.

In “Reports from the Global Village”, Umberto Eco said:

Certain forms of consensus are so essential to community life that they reestablish themselves despite every attempt to shake them. At most they are re-established in a more dogmatic or, I would say, more fanatical way. In a group where the technique of disruptive falsification is spread, a very Puritan ethic of truth would be reestablished; the majority (to defend the ideological bases of consent) would become fanatical about “truth” and would cut off the tongue of anyone who lied, even in a figure of speech.

This is as concise a description of Usenet as you’ll find anywhere. You’ve got people coming from all different areas, places, and cultures. And they’re discovering that what they hear in the news is not what their new friends hear. They’ve discovered that just because a fact is in print doesn’t mean it’s true, and some of them are a little miffed by the whole thing. Figures of speech do get attacked on the net, and truth--or honest attempts at truth--is required.

You can’t just say “God is dead”. You need the corpse and dental records to prove it.

The view that newspapers are almost always wrong has spread much further than the politics newsgroups. There was a discussion on a comic book newsgroup about the death of Jack Kirby a while back, and how he’d been shortchanged in his obituary by the New York Times. Jack Kirby is one of the big influences on American comics, if not the biggest influence on today’s American comics. But it is just comics, and American comics at that. It’s not surprising that the Times didn’t give him a full page when he died. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I saw the following post in this discussion:

Subject: Re: Stuff in the NY Times
From: [l--z--o] at [RT66.com] (Lazlo Nibble)
Date: Wed, 11 Jan 1995 23:49:22 -0700 (MST)

> Well, for one it’s insulting. It’s like the press coverage of Rwanda:
> lots of stuff about monkeys in danger, nothing about a tumultuous
> political situation leading to civil war and genocide. How do you
> think a Rwandan feels when exposed to the US press?

Probably about the same as any thinking American feels when exposed to the US press. That if you’re at all familiar with the subject matter of the story, they’re guaranteed to get it completely wrong. No surprises here.

It ain’t an isolated post. Apple Fellow Guy Kawasaki, after reading a magazine called “Forbes Media Critic”, wrote:

Have you ever found yourself reading a report about your industry and wondering if it was about the same industry you’re in? Then, a few minutes later, you read a report about another industry and assume that it’s factual and accurate. After reading MediaCritic, I don’t think you will be doing this anymore. Be warned: This is an unsettling read.

The “Communications Decency Act” made it into comic book discussion as well:

Subject: Re: Off topic: censorship legislation
From: Blues From A Glenn ([lf 7 z] at [midway.uchicago.edu])
Date: Wed, 7 Feb 96 13:06:11 CST

While I personally attribute a lot of media disinformation on good old-fashioned greed, naivete and ignorant fear.... It’s fairly clear what the politicos are after.... Free speech on the Internet is a serious threat to both the effectiveness and the credibility of propaganda and disinformation from “official sources,” i.e. it’s a threat to control, and the leverage of opinion, pure and simple. It’s already federal law that telephony switches be buggable, which is where the clipper is coming from. But that’s just not enough power, now they want control over our very words and topics of conversation over the Internet “phone.”

I knew that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but I was still surprised by how far afield these voices of dissent could come from.

I came to this knowledge through studying physics and then psychology, realizing each time that the press rarely ‘got things right’ when reporting on science news, and later I discovered that this principle went through to drugs and guns as well. How many other people will have gone on similar long routes and found the same thing? Perhaps more than I’ve been aware, or perhaps Usenet attracts such people.

Another person claims to specifically ignore the Clarinet attempt by the mainstream press to join Usenet:

From: [c--u--k] at [marsh.com]
Newsgroups: alt.conspiracy,alt.politics.usa.constitution,talk.politics.guns,misc.legal,misc.survivalism
Subject: Re: America’s Last Chance to Avoid a Rebellion: The 10th
Date: 14 Jan 1995 20:39:23 -0500

Karl Kluge ([k c kluge] at [krusty.eecs.umich.edu]) wrote:
> If you get ClariNews, look for the Reuters’ article “Repubicans (sic) won’t

I don’t use clari.* much. I use Usenet to gather a variety of viewpoints,
and the clarinet seems rather one-note. Thanks for contributing your view.

All best wishes,

Chuck.
--
.sig:Chuck Marsh, database consultant.
e-mail [c--u--k] at [marsh.com]; finger [cmar s h] at [telerama.lm.com]; whois marsh
gopher gopher.lm.com, neat place, see my ad in the Shopping Plaza.

A one-note approach to news isn’t going to cut it on the infobahn. There’s a story about computers that applies equally well to the major news outlets: Computers can do millions of calculations a second--calculations that would take a human being an entire lifetime. So when you ask a computer a question, it just makes up an answer. It knows you’ll never be able to check it.

CNN and the rest of the news sources still act like they’re the sole information source. Whereas reports in newspapers and on television cannot be checked, their sloppiness is painfully apparent on the web. This afternoon I happened to see a spew of incorrect “hits” to my web server, all coming from www.cnn.com. Turns out they put a carriage return in the middle of the page’s name. That’s a no-no. It’s one of the few things on the net that makes absolutely no sense. I fixed it so that, whenever visitors to CNN’s web page asked for the incorrect page, they got the correct page instead. And then I went to the offending page to take a look at it and find out what the point was.

I was quite flattered: at the bottom of the article, about conservative support for drug legalization, were two “related pages”. One of them was mine. Of course, the link was broken, but I’d fixed that, and even before I fixed it, my web server was smart enough to let readers know something was wrong, and what they’d need to do to fix it.

So I checked the other link.

It wasn’t just broken, it was gone. The page didn’t exist at that site. This isn’t a matter of the mercurial nature of the web. CNN had only put the page up an hour before. They just hadn’t bothered to check their information. In the “real world”, no one can tell when they’re just talking out of their hat. How would you go about checking Dan Rather’s sources? But they’re not in Kansas anymore. Verification is only a mouse click away--three clicks if they try and hide the source from you.

The information highway will become the primary source of information exchange. Newspapers and magazines are leary of the net because they don’t know how to make money off of it. But they’ll need to find out, because if they don’t transfer from paper subscriptions to electronic service, they’ll disappear.

Omni, the pseudo-science magazine from the Playboy chain, is transfering its publishing to an on-line format in the fall of 1995. They’ll be doing so through America On-Line, presumably in a hope of keeping control over their material. They’re hedging their bets: they aren’t dropping the printed version completely. But it will go from monthly to quarterly. Omni’s main distribution medium will be the net.

I suspect that every smart publisher will be keeping a very close eye on what happens with Omni. But every indication so far has been that there aren’t very many smart publishers out there, and most of them are still stuck in the nineteenth century.

A New York Times article quoted a “Harvard Medical School addictions expert” as saying “Online service is not as reliable as cocaine or alcohol but in the contemporary world, it is a fairly reliable way of shifting consciousness.” (?) Unfortunately for the Times and the rest of the print world, this consciousness shift will leave paper out in the cold.

The redwoods might argue that it belongs there.

  1. Barry Luckett, alt.fan.oj-simpson , June 20, 1994.
  2. Becky Bray, quoted in “Cyberspace, outer space merge”, The San Diego Union Tribune, March 6, 1995. The URL was last known as http://astro-2.msfc.nasa.gov/ .
  3. Real Time is geek-speak for “as it happens”. When you’re talking with a friend at the coffee-shop, you’re talking in ‘real time’: unless your friend is a real doormat, you’ll say something and they’ll respond immediately. Most conversations on the infobahn don’t occur in real time. They occur by electronic letter or posting. One person posts a message, and the other person reads it, mulls over it, and posts a reply a few hours or days later.
  4. New York Times, March 8, 1995, p. B1, as reported in the March 9, 1995 Edupage mailing list.
  1. Guerilla Semiotics
  2. InfoShok
  3. The Internet Library Today