Meeting at the Internet’s Town Square
Will information fragmentation splinter society?
Dan Rather, managing editor and anchor of CBS Evening News, addressed the World Affairs Council on matters of the Internet and journalism in November 1999. Excerpts from his remarks follow.
Mark well, I’m no expert on the Internet; I approach it as someone who cares deeply about the news and as one who inevitably sees new media through the lens of television. The obvious difference between television and the Internet is that the Internet takes a step through that “fourth wall,” to be interactive. For the news, I think this affords an opportunity to not only report to the viewing public, but to truly reach them with the information they need to know and the information our democracy needs the people to know. It’s a lesson known to every college professor, to every teacher—or, at least, the really good ones: If you want your students to retain what you say, don’t just lean against a lectern and let pearls of wisdom drop from your lips. Engage them. Question them. Consider how much better you would remember the content of the evening news if you were, in some way, a participant….
The future, if we dare look into its murky cloud, seems to be taking us toward a marriage of television and the Internet. It may not be very long at all before any distinction between the two belongs distinctly to the past. We now have streaming video online, Web-casts, and partnerships between television news programs and Web sites like the HealthWatch partnership at CBS that most recently got me thinking on all this.
It’s an exciting development in many ways, this move towards interactivity—particularly in the news, and particularly if we remember that no amount of technological wizardry can take the place of quality content. But there are certain places where I think we need to stand guard at the dawn of this revolution. Even if we take the Internet on its own terms, we can’t ignore what our experience tells us about the dangers we might face in putting and getting news online.
…. When everyone’s talking, you can’t always believe what you hear. Of course, we should always practice a healthy skepticism, no matter what our source of information. But certain news programs, certain newspapers, and certain journals have a demonstrable record of truth telling, of accuracy in their reporting. I pretend no false modesty in saying that I hold CBS News high—very high—in this regard. And of course I also recognize the records of our network competitors in this. We’ve all built reliability through years of hard work.
The thing about the Internet is, just about anyone can set up a Web site that looks like and has the feel of news organs we’ve learned to trust. Broadcasting the news, especially, has traditionally been an expensive proposition. And if you don’t cast the die for truth-telling from the start, if you don’t burnish it with every story you do, then you, your network, your newspaper, your magazine, are throwing that capital investment right down the drain. Once caught in a lie, or in a pattern of error, you will be tuned out.
As journalists, we have an ethical code. This is important to us, important enough that reporters have given their very lives to get you the real story. But even if it were not, it would still obtain in large part because to do it any other way would simply be bad business. And even if the news itself is not a business, television is; publishing is.
On the Internet, a legitimate look less often assures that journalism is being practiced. A voice crying in the wilderness of the Internet may not even care if you believe it tomorrow, let alone the next day. The accountability, the reliability, is not, until tested, always there.
The Internet as town square—a gossiping, teeming hub of communication—is undeniably part of its excitement. But those of us who do the news and care about doing it right must remember that we are bound to separate gossip from fact. We might hope that journalists in established media might tame this impulse on the Internet, or at least aid in separating the gossip from the news. But we have reason to fear that the trend is working the other way.
Certain precincts of the Internet threaten to be another place, like the supermarket tabloids, to which legitimate news organs can point and say, “Hey, we’re not saying this ourselves, but we’re going to take a look at what they’re reporting, just so you know.” We need to be closing these back doors for gossip to find its way into the news, not opening more. We ought to make it crystal clear that if you feed from the bottom, you’re not going to be kosher.
If gossip has found its way onto the news through a back door, at the front door, traditionally, is the gatekeeper: the managing editor. This is my title at the CBS Evening News, anchor and managing editor. It means that I, like others who hold this title in print and broadcast journalism, are responsible for using hard-won professional judgment to separate real information from misinformation, the trivial from the important, the impartial from that which too narrowly serves a specific interest.
With the Internet comes the potential to act as one’s own managing editor, one’s own gatekeeper. It’s an exciting possibility but one that we must learn to use wisely. Now you can get news from more or less traditional sources but just the news you say you want. This doesn’t seem so bad, on its face. Isn’t this, after all, a big part of what the Internet is all about—tailoring an experience to an interest or a personal schedule, bringing the like-minded from across the country, around the world, at all hours, together in cyberspace?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword. And we ought to recognize that this trend could contribute to the balkanization of our society and of our lives, public and private. In a way, sure, the Internet is the realized ideal of the town meeting. But no one foresaw a town meeting where you wouldn’t have to listen to everyone in the room.
While winnowing the information gusher to a more manageable, personalized stream makes perfect sense for specific areas of interest, we ought to be careful that we don’t all fall into the habit of looking at the whole world only through this sort of hyper-focused lens.
In America, where informed citizens are a necessity, the journalists, the managing editors among us, have understood—not always perfectly, but almost always in good faith—our role in fostering a common share of knowledge and understanding. With the enormous challenges we’re likely to face in our weeks and months and years ahead, we can afford now less than ever to become wrapped in self-configured cocoons of information.
Perhaps the time has come for us to rediscover the value of shared experience, of shared information, of some common, daily element that keeps our hand in public life. The stakes are simply to high for us to fold on this. For the past 50 years, television news has played this role of the public square—for better or worse—and it looks as if the Internet will play the role in some way in the future, with or without television. But we must make a conscious decision that we want to maintain a common society within the structures of the new media or we risk walking and talking past each other with virtual blinders on. The great debates of our time might be monopolized by those with the greatest personal or financial stake in their outcome, and all before we know it.