Highway Robbery 

Is Internet populism destined for corporate ruin?

Not long ago, the path by which the recent Justice Department scandal traveled from tidbit to tsunami would have been seen as an exotic trip through an unknown land. These days, it’s almost routine. A prominent blogger—Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo—posted an item last December about a United States attorney who had been fired for mysterious reasons. Marshall asked his readers for help. And in the weeks and months that followed, they responded by sending him similar tales. Marshall and his posse of blogger-reporters kept the story cooking on Talking Points Memo and a companion site, TPM Muckraker. The mainstream media finally noticed that the Bush administration had been playing politics with federal prosecutors. Soon, the Justice Department was in full meltdown mode. And, in late summer, after many months of twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally resigned.

That this tale of media ecology now seems unremarkable says much about how rapidly the media have evolved in the Internet age. At a moment when the traditional media are hemorrhaging readers, viewers, and listeners, a new type of media—democratic, decentralized, grassroots, melding elements of journalism with political activism—is thriving. The animating idea behind the most innovative projects is that news is a conversation. No longer should readers, viewers or listeners be seen as passive recipients of whatever the media feel like feeding them. Now we can talk back—and, more importantly, participate.

It is a remarkably open moment, similar to radio in the early part of the 20th century. As with radio, some corporations—in this case, the telecommunications giants—would like to bring that moment to a close by pricing small players out of existence. The threat is real; if “net neutrality,” the term for the equal access we now enjoy, is lost, we’ll be getting most of our online content from the same media giants that dominate broadcast, cable and print. For now, though, the open Internet is enabling grassroots media on an unprecedented scale.

Consider this: Were it not for YouTube, Virginia voters never would have seen Republican senator George Allen blurt out the vaguely racist word “macaca” at Democratic rival Jim Webb’s dark-skinned, video-camera-wielding aide last fall. Not only would have voters likely re-elected Allen, but today he might well have emerged as a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Instead, he’s back home in Virginia, wondering how it all went wrong.

Or look at MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, two websites devoted to political organizing from a progressive point of view. Such sites have proved so adept at generating money and excitement that they may well have been indispensable to the Democrats’ taking back both branches of Congress last fall. (Not that such sites can’t sometimes prove to be a mixed blessing—witness how the right mobilized over MoveOn’s recent full-page ad in The New York Times asking whether General David Petraeus might prove to be “General Betray Us.”)

Indeed, Internet-based political activists—the “netroots”—have become such a crucial part of the Democratic and progressive base that Jonathan Chait, whose magazine, the New Republic, is frequently lambasted by these activists for its insufficient ardor on behalf of progressive causes, has called them “the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago.” And that’s just the overtly political side of the new media. If anything, the effect on journalism may prove to be even more revolutionary.

Dan Gillmor, who popularized the term “citizen journalist” in his influential 2004 book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, likes to refer to these newly engaged, interactive news junkies as “the former audience.” Gillmor writes: “Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communications network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves.”

What might this conversational, revolutionary news model look like?

• In an attempt to combine the social-networking power of sites like MySpace and Facebook with journalism, a nascent, experimental project called NewsTrust encourages participants to rate news stories, media outlets and even one other. Unlike the more popular Digg or Reddit, which asks users only if they like or dislike a particular story, NewsTrust users are presented with a wide range of criteria, including thoroughness, fairness, and sourcing. It’s the classic “wisdom of the crowd” notion—the best and most important stories should rise to the top, regardless of whether they appeared in the mainstream media, on an alternative website or in a blog.

• New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has long used his widely read blog, PressThink, to argue for journalism that somehow combines the best of the traditional media with the energy of bloggers and citizen journalists. Now Rosen is attempting to put that into practice. His latest project, NewAssignment.Net, is devoted to what he calls “pro/am” or “open source” reporting—professional journalists and the “former audience” working together, applying more human capital to a journalistic endeavor than even the best-funded investigative team would be able to muster. It’s too early to tell whether NewAssignment.Net will be successful, but some of its projects—like “Off the Bus,” presidential-campaign dispatches produced by amateur correspondents and uploaded to the Huffington Post—are intriguing.

• Across the country and around the world, people are setting up local blogs to cover the comings and goings of their communities. They range from slick efforts like Baristanet, a for-profit site in Essex County, New Jersey, to a wide range of amateur (and often amateurish) projects slapped together by activists and cranks alike, read by just a handful of people. With even small weekly newspapers getting snapped up by large, out-of-state corporations, these local blogs—“placeblogs,” as they have been dubbed by Lisa Williams, founder of H2otown in Watertown—are emerging as a vital alternative.

Clearly, the industrial, top-down, corporate-controlled news media of the past 150 years are in the midst of giving way to something else. The late social critic Neil Postman was not alone in pointing out the fallacy of thinking about new technology as nothing more than a better, faster version of that which it replaced. Superficially, radio was the audio equivalent of print, and television was radio with pictures. Because each of these developments required less work and less engagement on the part of the consumer, each led to an increased reliance on emotion over reason, on received certainty over critical thinking.

Radio, and especially television, are passive, one-way media. Since the advent of television, radio has been the medium of choice mainly for people doing something else (driving, cooking, exercising), which at least ensures a certain amount of blood flow to the brain. Television, though, can only be taken in while sitting reasonably still, the better to receive messages in all their packaged totality. It’s an alternate reality that seems as real, or more real, than what’s taking place outside our homes. It has created a society of alienated, atomized individuals; a decline in civic engagement; and an expectation that entertainment and information are merely to be received, not acted upon.

This passive model of media consumption was the inevitable consequence of the Industrial Revolution, whose giantism influenced the media as fully as every other sphere of life. As Yale University law professor Yochai Benkler shows in his 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks, as recently as 1835, James Gordon Bennett was able to found the New York Herald, perhaps the first truly modern newspaper, with an investment of just $500—$10,400 in 2005 dollars. By 1850, the cost of launching a daily paper had risen to $100,000, or nearly $2.4 million in 2005 dollars, thanks to the introduction of high-speed industrial presses, the telegraph and the concomitant rise of wire services. Needless to say, once the 20th century rolled around, the cost of launching radio and television stations was exponentially higher than that of starting a newspaper. All of this led to the media environment with which we’re so familiar today: enormous organizations controlling nearly all of our television and radio stations, newspapers, books, magazines, music and film, with little or no competition and virtually no meaningful way for citizens to interact with them.

But then the Internet happened. And rather than being simply the next phase of industrialization, the Internet mode of media proved to be distinctly post-industrial. To be sure, huge corporations have tried mightily to stake their claims. Every media organization, large and small, has its own Web site, and the online incarnations of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC, to name a few, are among the most-visited news sites on the Web. But, in contrast to the industrial media, the Internet enables small players and individuals to engage on a roughly equal footing with Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch. Moreover, the Internet is uniquely suited to talking back, thus transforming what had been a we-speak/you-listen model into something approaching a dialogue. “Statements in the public sphere can now be seen as invitations for a conversation, not as finished goods,” writes Benkler.

But what of the cacophony of voices? If everyone is shouting, can anyone be heard? This is not an insignificant problem. The level of Internet discourse can be quite low, and it’s a challenge to weed out the consequential from the irrelevant. Yet this problem is not insurmountable. For one thing, judging the relative credibility of various websites and blogs is not all that different from deciding that The New York Times does a better job than the New York Post. News and political websites and bloggers must earn trust by doing good, reliable work over time, just like mainstream-media organizations.

The Internet, though, offers tools that empower the community to make those judgments in ways that just weren’t possible with traditional media. Tim O’Reilly, in his 2005 essay “What Is Web 2.0,” is far from alone in putting this in terms of “collective intelligence.” And, indeed, the tools that have come to be associated with Web 2.0—tagging content so others can easily find it; sharing it on social-media sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Digg; mass rewriting and editing, as with Wikipedia; or group blogging (with the “best” posts being sent to the top of the heap by the community), as with Daily Kos and a number of other political sites — allow for a certain rough consensus that gathers the judgments of many people.

Moreover, the very notion of mass media and mass audiences is giving way to small, specialized sites, to niches within niches within niches. The pioneering blogger David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999), which anticipated much of this movement, has put it this way: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 people.” Most of the Internet—and certainly that part of it devoted to political activism, blogging and independent journalism—exists somewhere in “the long tail,” a phrase popularized by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to describe the vast majority of products, such as books and CDs, that sell in too little numbers to warrant being stocked by, say, Wal-Mart, but that can easily justify their existence in a virtual world without warehouses and inventory.

Anderson’s description sounds a lot like the new media landscape that is starting to slip into view. “You can think of the Long Tail starting as a traditional monetary economy at the head and ending in a nonmonetary economy at the tail,” he writes in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). “In between the two, it’s a mixture of both.”

Until recently, the news media were all head, no tail. Now the head is shrinking, but the tail is lengthening. Before it stopped posting a McDonald’s-style tally on its home page earlier this year, Technorati, a search engine for blogs, had claimed that there were as many as 70 million blogs in existence. And in between the head and the tail, as Anderson observes, is the mix of paid and unpaid content—the NewAssignment.Net experiment in “pro/am” journalism, or Josh Marshall’s reader-driven investigation of the Justice Department, or the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that led an investigation into congressional earmarks last year built mainly on an online appeal to readers to contact their congressional representatives, ask some tough questions and e-mail the results.

As the tail lengthens, Big Media are starting to panic. In this regard, the canary in the coal mine is the music industry, which is going after everyone from high-school and college students who download music from those peer-to-peer networks that haven’t yet been sued out of existence to the meager earnings of Internet radio stations in an attempt to shore up its once-guaranteed monopoly profits.

It could get a lot worse. Not long ago, the idea that corporations could use their power to gain control of the Internet might have sounded ridiculous. The Internet, after all, is an open platform, with a capacity that is, for all practical purposes, infinite. Even with the media giants setting up vast websites and pulling in huge numbers of eyeballs, there was nothing to stop ordinary citizens from pursuing their own projects. Right?

Well, sort of. In fact, the Internet may not be as impervious to the depredations of Corporate America as we might have thought. In his book Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, published earlier this year, veteran media activist Jeff Chester traces the long, dispiriting history of media regulation in the United States and predicts that, if we’re not careful, the Internet—like radio and television before it—will be handed over to business interests by elected officials dependent on their campaign contributions and by regulators hoping for lucrative industry careers once they leave government service.

But wait—didn’t radio and television fall into corporate hands because of a simple law of physics? Didn’t hopes for a democratic broadcasting regime fall victim to the reality that there are only so many broadcasting frequencies out there? How is that even remotely comparable to the Internet and its limitless capacity?

The argument Chester makes is that we should stop thinking about the Internet as it is and instead focus on the much faster Internet of the future—an Internet supercharged with fiber optics, capable of delivering broadcast-quality television, full-length movies, and all sorts of content well beyond the capacity of today’s cable and DSL connections. This is the Internet that could be closed off and reserved for corporate content. Or, as AT&T chief executive Ed Whitacre memorably put it in 2005, “Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?”

In return for bringing the next-generation Internet online, the telecommunications companies want to be allowed to do away with “net neutrality”—that is, to be allowed to charge content-providers a premium to take advantage of the faster speeds. Such a two-tiered arrangement would relegate nonprofits, community-based sites, lone bloggers and the like to the slow lane—and, eventually, to oblivion, as users would come to see them as too retro and too frustratingly slow to bother with.

The Internet is the single greatest threat to corporate dominance of the media since the industrial model was established a century and a half ago. It would be naïve to think that these corporations wouldn’t fight back. In so doing, they are embracing (as Neil Postman predicted they would) not the strategy of Orwell’s 1984, but of Huxley’s Brave New World. By ensuring that all the latest, richest, coolest content is on the new, high-speed, corporate-controlled Net, they’ll deprive the independent sites of the oxygen they need to survive. And we’ll be so overloaded with entertainment that we won’t care.

“That the self-serving interests of a few giants could end up threatening the potential of the Internet to serve democracy and fair competition illustrates the corruption and intellectual bankruptcy of U.S. communications policymaking,” Chester writes. The election of a Democratic Congress last November, and the ascendance
of pro-consumer congressmen like U.S. Representative Edward Markey to key regulatory positions, may help stave off the telecoms—for now. But these behemoths, after all, donate to members of both parties. A leading proponent of the campaign to do away with net neutrality is former Bill Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry. Clearly, the assault on the open Internet is a bipartisan proposition.

The fight to ensure net neutrality is the first great media regulatory war of the 21st century. The outcome will determine whether the Berlin Wall is really falling down—or if, instead, this is a Prague spring, a brief moment of freedom that will inevitably be followed by a new wave of corporate media dominance.

This article originally appeared in the
Boston Phoenix. Dan Kennedy, an award-winning Phoenix contributing writer, teaches journalism at Northeastern University and blogs at Media Nation (medianation.blogspot.com). He can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com .
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