By Scott Rosenberg
Getting Big Media to present alternative points of view can be a tough proposition. (Look at the lengths to which the Unabomber has gone.) Writing a letter to the editor and hoping that a newspaper or magazine will deign to print it has always been a slow, frustrating ritual.
Today, readers are discovering a faster and more powerful tool for responding to press coverage they feel is flawed: Call it collective on-line media criticism.
It's no surprise that Time magazine's July 3 "Cyberporn" cover story -- appearing as it did in the middle of a congressional debate about new laws meant to restrict the flow of sexual images on computer networks -- would arouse passionate disagreement in the libertarian-leaning Internet culture.
But in the hours and days after the Time story was published, something extraordinary happened in the Media conference on the Well, the Sausalito-based computer conferencing system: Scholars, reporters and activists examined the Time story and the Carnegie Mellon University study it was based upon and took them apart, line by line, statistic by statistic, in full public view.
The Well is a popular hangout for journalists and journalism junkies; the author of the Time story, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, is among its regulars. Over the past 10 days, anyone who pulled up a virtual chair on the Well could follow all the principals in this controversy as they thrashed out their disagreements.
Time's story presented the findings of an "exhaustive study of on-line porn" by Carnegie Mellon's Martin Rimm published in the Georgetown Law Journal. Key figures: The study "surveyed 917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips." It looked at a sub-section of Usenet -- a kind of global message board available on the Internet and mostly used for exchanging text -- and found that "on those Usenet newsgroups where digitized images are stored, 83.5 percent of the pictures were pornographic."
What Time didn't make clear, critics pointed out, is that those 917,410 "pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips" were not on Usenet at all, but drawn from adult-only dial-up bulletin boards (BBSs) that are not part of the Internet (and not accessible by children). If the Internet is often labeled as "the information superhighway," the BBSs, which existed long before the Internet became popular, are more like information back alleys.
Though Time reported that "pornographic image files" "represent only about 3 percent of all the messages on the Usenet newsgroups," and "the Usenet itself represents only 11.5 percent of the traffic on the Internet," it didn't put the figures together to reach the not-so-alarming conclusion -- that pornographic images therefore represent less than half of 1 percent of Internet traffic. (Rimm argues, for complex but persuasive reasons relating to the size of image files, that the correct figure here is 2.5 percent - still a pretty modest number.)
Nor did Time report one of Rimm's other findings: That of 11,576 sites examined on the World Wide Web - the only segment of the Internet that works with point-and-click ease, and presumably the focus of parental fears - only nine contained R- or X-rated sexual images.
These are not the numbers quoted by the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed as he campaigns for Internet censorship. Nor are they quoted by politicians like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who stood up on the Senate floor the day Time's article appeared and said: "83.5 percent of the 900,000 images reviewed -- these are all on the Internet -- are pornographic."
Such statistical misrepresentations tend to acquire a media half-life of their own -- particularly, as many on the Well pointed out, in the context of Time's package, with its cover photo of a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, pasty-faced tot at a keyboard, and its fanciful illustrations of nude figures testing out Kama Sutra positions with computer monitors.
Rimm and his critics are still arguing about dozens of statistics and their interpretations. What's remarkable about the debate is that the blow-by-blow is available, unedited, as it happens, to the public. Critiques of the Time piece and the Rimm study are both on the World Wide Web; so is Rimm's defense. (The study's full text is promised at the latter site by Monday.) The Well debate is open to anyone with an account on that system, whose membership is about 10,000.
Elmer-DeWitt, in an interview Wednesday with the Examiner, called the critiques "picky" and defended Time's coverage: "It's a major study from a reputable university published in a leading law journal to which we had exclusive access. . . . I think the jury is still out about how flawed the study was, and it remains the best and most complete analysis we have of how much porn is out there. Nobody has done a better job."
Elmer-DeWitt described himself as "a champion of this kind of participatory journalism where news, rather than being dictated from the top editorially, instead bubbles up from the grass roots." But, he added, "I'm not sure Rimm will ever get a fair trial in this venue."
What's amazing, though, is that there's any trial at all -- given the ease with which media institutions like Time can, when they choose, stonewall their critics.
Traditional journalists sometimes complain that the on-line environment, lacking the filter of professional editing, is untrustworthy, static-filled and therefore useless.
The Time controversy, though, suggests that on-line debate can enhance rather than undermine the journalistic quest for truth. The new medium gives readers a faster, more efficient means to try to correct the public record when they feel the professional editors have goofed.
Posting on the Well, Jon Katz, media critic formerly for New York magazine and Rolling Stone and currently for Wired, wrote, "The question for Time is, will it share with its readers the fact that the research may be seriously flawed and has been seriously challenged? Time has made much -- in many ways deservedly -- of its efforts to embrace new media values of interactivity and accountability. . . . It strikes me the responsible path is to examine the challenges, report them to Time's readers, and then either stand by the story or retract it."
Asked whether Time plans to give any coverage to the controversy, Elmer-DeWitt said, "We run our standard letters column, and that would be the most logical place for the criticism."
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