Journal steps in Net neutrality hornet’s nest

One of the reasons I’ve proposed MediaBugs as my project in the Knight News Challenge is that professional news organizations don’t have a very good record of transparency and responsiveness when it comes to fixing errors. Today’s tempest over the Wall Street Journal’s front page story on Net neutrality offers a nice illustration of what I mean.

The hook of the Journal piece was a report of documents that showed Google, long considered a staunch supporter of Net neutrality, was “quietly” changing its tune by “approaching major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content.” In addition, the article said, “prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.” The only scholar discussed in any detail was Lawrence Lessig.

Admittedly, the Net neutrality issue is complex, both technically and as a legal/policy matter. But it’s precisely the sort of topic that the Wall Street Journal is supposed to get right. And both key subjects of the story, Google and Lessig, have now stepped forward to say that the story is simply wrong.

Google posted a response saying that what it’s proposing is a species of caching of Web content to speed its delivery; the service provider wouldn’t be deciding which content gets treated better. (David Weinberger explains this in more and better detail.) The Journal story did not provide readers with any hint of an understanding of that aspect of the issue.

The Journal Web site offered a roundup of critical response to the story this morning. But it’s interesting to note the tone and substance of this roundup: Its lead says that the article “certainly got a rise out of the blogosphere.” It goes on to list a variety of responses to the piece, without ever dealing with the heart of the issue, which is that the key players in the story say that the story is wrong.

The Journal roundup describes Lessig as “critical of the story” but fails to say why. What Lessig says is that the original WSJ piece claimed that he had shifted his position on the issue, and he has not done so: unlike some others in the Net neutrality camp, he has consistently supported the idea of “fast lanes” on the Web as long as everyone has equal access to them.

Net neutrality isn’t easy to explain. But the Journal story had more room than most to try to do so. Even if the writers believe that Google’s explanation of its position is somehow deceptive or insincere, they owe it to their readers to include that argument. The initial story’s failures are only compounded by the follow-up roundup, which purports to cover the bases of Web reactions but leaves out the most importance responses.

This happens all the time: A newspaper does a shoddy job of covering a complex issue; then, when people raise questions about the story’s accuracy, the paper views their criticism as sour grapes, and never bothers to deal with the substance of the complaints.

Here, Google and Lessig aren’t saying merely, “this was a bad story.” They’re both saying, “We are principals to this story, and the story got our position wrong, and then used that error as a news peg.” I’ll be curious to see whether the Journal follows up further with these complaints. Its readers deserve better.

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  1. jayackroyd

    One reason it is “not easy” is that the telecom companies routinely introduce false elements into the story. This creates a huge problem for, frankly, lazy reporters. The telecos say something that is not true. The geeks point this out. Then the reporter should have the mission of finding out which is true, and which is not.

    Simpler to say the “telcos” say this and the geeks say that. And maybe, the telcos say, the geeks are changing their positions.

    Huh? Huh?

    It’s appalling that reporters get played this way.

  2. One has to wonder if the current Ownership Change at the Journal is making itself felt, since there is much to gain in muddying the waters.

    Especially since they have so much to lose if Net Neutrality is made law once again, like it used to be, before Chairman Martin of the FCC kissed the butts of the telecomms by declaring the internet an “information service”.

    Until separation of Content and Service Provision are made law by Local Loop Unbundling, we’ll continue to have these dustups. We need true competition in this arena, and as long as there is none, the Telecomm and Cable Cos will keep Astroturfing and Buying Off Reporters with Faux News.

  3. Here is Tim Berners-Lee’s explanation, which makes it seem pretty easy:

    “If I pay for a level of service and you pay for that or greater level of service, then we can communicate at that level of service.” (quoted from memory)


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