On a sunny June afternoon, my gym towel forgotten by my side, I stood with what seemed like the entire YMCA membership in downtown Los Angeles as we watched the TV. A white Bronco was slowly making its way along an Interstate freeway. We could not hear any commentary, as the sound was turned off. Someone whispered tightly, “Go, go!” The white Bronco, of course, contained O.J. Simpson on his famous 1994 not-quite flight from the law. We were transfixed, as were an estimated 95 million other Americans. I stood there watching for over an hour. What was so compelling about this drive?
It was raw news, that’s what. No one knew what would happen. Would he kill himself? Flee? Get violent? It was uncontrolled, uncontrollable. No slick news producer or suit-wearing anchor was going to get in the way of our seeing what would happen. This was as real as it gets, and in real time.
What in 1994 seemed momentous is now banal. We’ve become addicted to the sensation of reality, so much so that the media conglomerates have spent millions crafting fake versions of reality so we can get that feeling. But the Internet has made reality really possible, warts and all. Those who enthusiastically heralded a new age of democratic control of the means of publication were on to something. Anyone can — and many do — create Web pages that chronicle their every idle moment. While many such pages just lay there, unvisited, others get unbelievable amounts of traffic as people tune in to have the sensation of seeing real life.
The addiction to the now, always an endemic problem in the scoop-driven news business, has been further enabled by the Internet.
In the arguments now raging about “blogs,” the battle lines have been drawn between so-called “MSM” (mainstream media) and the “bloggers” (scrappy, independent folks who just want information to be free and who self-publish the truth because MSM won’t). In this story of David and Goliath, it’s easy to see who the good guys are — it’s those scrappy bloggers. But it’s not that easy.
– First, blogging has now been co-opted by MSM. Most major news outlets have a “blog” outlet, in which its reporters constantly post tidbits, keeping the stream flowing.
– Second, even those scrappy, independent bloggers aren’t so scrappy and independent anymore. They’re turning into businesses. There are conglomerates of blogs, and the popular ones make enough off of ad revenue to get by without having any other job than blogging.
– Third, blogging relies fundamentally on mainstream reporting. Blog articles almost always refer to this newspaper article, or that piece in a weekly newsmagazine, or link to a transcript of a morning talk show.
It’s fair to say there’s a symbiosis between David and Goliath. David relies on Goliath’s content; Goliath has seen the market utility of David’s speed.
Recently, on the blog of a major magazine, this appeared, attached to a brief discussion of a political figure’s future plans: “I have no inside information here, so this is just raw speculation.” And another time, this, the day after learning about a mistaken fact: “I’m sticking to a tried and true policy today, yesterday notwithstanding, no posting till you . . . actually know what you’re . . . talking about.” And, from the other side of the aisle, from another blog: “As usual, we observe the accelerated-for-internet-age dictum to not make a joke about [a new, possibly tragic event] for at least three hours.”
One scandalous, one humble, one funny. All share an implicit acknowledgement of the powerful temptation to publish now, untethered by truth.
This temptation, the flipside of our general public addiction to the sensation of reality, trumps the more principled David-and-Goliath argument about letting the truth be free. The real urge, beyond letting truth be free, beyond fancy arguments about the democratization of data, is to “post.”
Because it’s exciting.
When the O.J. trial was in full swing, I worked in an office that had access to the Associated Press news wire. That was before everyone had the World Wide Web in their bedrooms. We wasted countless hours reading the dribs and drabs of information that would come out. A story would move over the wire, then fifteen minutes later the same story would move again, with corrections or additions. You could imagine the arguments they were having at the main office, as they argued about whether a story was ready to go or not. The entire system was built on a set of tensions between various people who wanted, on the one hand, to get the scoop but, on the other hand, did not want to have to issue a correction.
These stories had to be right. Because they would end up printed, ineditably so, on front pages across the nation. There was a high consequence of innaccuracy.
Now, the bonds that used to create that tension have been dissolved. Those scrappy bloggers are posting their not-yet-quite-completed thoughts without the benefit of other eyes to tell them perhaps they ought to wait. The MSM-blog hybrids are encouraged to run wild, thoughts going directly to the eyeballs of the public.
On the one hand, it’s easy to argue that all this is all to the good. Any countervailing forces to the corporate stranglehold on information are to be seen as a net plus. After all, wasn’t it bloggers who discredited the infamous CBS Bush-National Guard memos?
But for every truth-let-free moment, there are numerous examples of irresponsible bombast, of mean-spirited gossip, of treacherous privacy-breaching. Because the Leviathan that is the “blogosphere” demands to be fed with real-time, real-seeming reality.
On the Web one day, I clicked on a link to one of the hostage-beheading videos. Responsible admonishments were all over it: “WARNING: GRAPHIC,” they read. But I could barely help myself. There it was, unadulterated, right now. I followed the link. I wish I hadn’t. That was one bit of reality I did not need to see.
I am part of the world that is the target of this critique. This column is self-published, on a Web site. I feel an imperative to “post” on a regular basis, lest my traffic diminish. I have no official editor. I can amend whatever I write.
In this world, people are “writers” who never thought of themselves as writers before. Voices have entered public life that would have been silent. That’s good.
But, I’m ambivalent. Sometimes, scrolling through the Internet, I worry about the price we’re paying for all that. The choice rests as much with the consumers as it does with the producers.
Can we get over our addiction to “now” for long enough to begin to taste the real fruits of democratic news?