On April Fool's day, Portland Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe delivered a lively keynote address at the annual conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, summing up her reflections after a one-year term as ASNE president: 'The newest news dispenser, the runaway Internet, makes a journalist out of anybody who has a modem. It values speed and sensationalism above accuracy. New media will not accept our standards. We are foolish to treat them as if they have.' ? Sandra Mims Rowe 'This is a grim time for newspapers,' Rowe said, and then pinned the blame for the industry's malaise on the use of anonymous sources, the ill effects of newspaper managements 'blindly driven by Wall Street,' and the degenerate influence of... the World Wide Web.
'Other media that do not share newspaper standards are recasting the definitions of news. But we do not have to be pulled along,' she warned. 'The newest news dispenser, the runaway Internet, makes a journalist out of anybody who has a modem. It values speed and sensationalism above accuracy. New media will not accept our standards. We are foolish to treat them as if they have.'
The shoddy standards of the 'runaway Internet' have been invoked again and again in TV roundtables and journalism conferences, ever since Matt Drudge reported in January that Newsweek had killed a story about the president and Monica Lewinsky.
The recurring theme spelled out in the ensuing news coverage and discussion transcripts is that the newfangled Net is luring traditional journalism into the ethical abyss.
The Washington Post's Tom Shales called it 'the new electronic Tower of Babel.' The Freedom Forum and the Columbia Journalism Review convened special conferences about 'the speed of cyberspace.' Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw wrote about how the 'speed of reporting via the Web tests accuracy and ethics.'
'If newspapers want to draw large numbers of visitors to their sites so they can charge advertisers accordingly, they have to compete with other sites that often have much lower -- or no -- journalistic standards,' Shaw wrote in his March 31 article. 'Speed is the name of the Internet game, and as journalists in every medium have long known, speed is often the enemy of accuracy.'
Actually, the most popular news sites have perfectly normal standards (the top 10 in April include ZDNet.com, Pathfinder.com, MSNBC.com, ESPN.com, SNAP.com and CNN.com, according to ratings agency Media Metrix). And real-time journalism has been successfully practiced for most this century by wire services and broadcasters. In fact, the biggest online gaffes during the Lewinsky outbreak were articles the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News published -- then retracted -- from their Web sites.
For Web journalism veterans, Shaw's half-informed, vaguely condescending tone has been the norm whenever the Old Media has covered the new over the past five years. Now, using Matt Drudge as the lone whipping boy, industry stalwarts continue to deliver high-sounding and factually challenged lectures about ethics.
'There are quite literally so many arrogant idiots covering the Internet for traditional media,' wrote new media freelancer Brooke Shelby Biggs, in a July 1997 Hotwired column attacking Shaw's infamous five-part series about the Internet last June. 'That if I wrote about them and them alone, I could fill up my 1,000-word space daily by citing their inaccuracies, misleading statements, and fear-driven bias and paranoia one by one.'
After years of seeing mainstream articles exaggerating the dangers of cyberporn, hackers and hate groups, Net journalists jump at the chance to rub the Old Media's noses in its own high-profile mistakes, such as Stephen Glass's fabrication about hackers for The New Republic, and AP-triggered reports on ABC and Reuters that Bob Hope had died.
'If an online publication of note had succumbed to a similarly wacky fraud in the offline world,' wrote Salon's Scott Rosenberg, after the Glass debacle. 'Say, if News.com or Feed (or Salon) had published a story about bribery at some federal regulatory agency that turned out not to exist -- you can well imagine the outcry. There! Proof that Web journalism has no standards!'
Forbes Digital Tool Editor Adam Penenberg, the online journalist who exposed Glass's fabrications, hoped his debunking would help change the tenor of articles about the Web.
'I feel strongly that we've been dissed by traditional media so often, maybe this whole incident will show that we deserve some respect,' Penenberg told Wired News. 'We've always had to be better than print because if we weren't, then people would say, 'Well, that's the Internet, can't trust it.''
Many on both sides attribute much of the cultural gap to the simple fact that many newsrooms across America still aren't plugged into the Web. But the last two years have seen an increase in newsroom usage, and a veritable explosion in online versions of major newspapers and broadcasters.
Paul K. Harral, ombudsman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said his paper has been ahead of most in covering the Internet in part because it has been publishing an electronic edition called StarText for 15 years.
'But the coverage has become more sophisticated and grown in quantity as we are able to allow more people access to it,' Harral said. 'I'm still amazed at the number of people in my profession who do not know how to use the Internet or who are not connected to it at least at home if they cannot be connected at work.'
Some of today's best coverage of the Internet comes from the organizations who have invested the most in their online activities: the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Knight-Ridder.
'Certainly, U.S. newspapers and magazines have come a long way over the last two years, particularly by hiring reporters who have a deeper understanding of the Internet,' Rosenberg wrote in Salon.
There are other factors besides inexperience and Matt Drudge's high-profile blunders contributing to the view of reporting on the Net. Plummeting public confidence, escalating celebrity coverage, and fear of the technological unknown have fostered 'a crisis of conviction, a philosophical collapse in the belief in the purpose of journalism and the meaning of news,' according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Project for Excellence in Journalism, (http://www.journalism.org) and a media critic for MSNBC (http://www.msnbc.com).
'We were confident about journalism when we controlled who published,' Rosenstiel told a Columbia Journalism Review forum last December. 'But now that anybody with a Web site and fifty bucks can be a communicator, we don't know how to distinguish ourselves from our new, pseudo competitors. Instead, all too often we sadly try to imitate them.'
The tension between those who once 'controlled' publishing and the new generation of modem pamphleteers frequently escalates into what sounds like a pitched battle between the 'elitists' and the 'populists.'
Such was the scene when Drudge confronted the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. June. Drudge played the part of a modern-day Horace Greeley, too underprivileged to belong to the Beltway, but happily dancing through the back door thanks to the throwback, democratic virtues of the revolutionary new medium.
'We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices,' Drudge gushed. 'Now, with a modem, anyone can follow the world and report on the world -- no middle man, no big brother.'
Moderator and club President Doug Harbrecht, the Washington bureau chief of Business Week, represented the elitist class with questions such as, 'Do you think journalists should have any minimum educational requirements?', 'Does populism equal consistently good journalism?', and finally, 'Aren't you coarsening the public discourse?'
Though many Net journalists are clearly tired of defending Drudge, the sentiments he provokes in the Old Media are enough to activate the New Media's itchy trigger fingers.
'To be a journalist in this country, you don't have to pass a test; you don't have to get a license,' snarled MSNBC columnist Brock N. Meeks in a February column on Drudge. 'Mainstream journalism is shot through with legions of tired, lazy hacks that can't report or write their way through a 500-word story. So all this talk of 'lower standards' for online and 'higher standards' for traditional journalism is a diversion.'
It's a diversion that shows signs of ending. Good Web reporters like Meeks are gravitating from hellraising one-man sites, like his CyberWire Dispatch, to giant media companies like MSNBC. As the public triples its use of the Internet as a source for news, so too do journalists use it more as a research tool, learning along the way how to distinguish the good sites from the bad. And as the major media companies dive into online publishing, the likes of Drudge and his lesser-known rivals are being decisively out-visited by ABC.com, CBS Now, USATODAY.com and CNET.com.
'It's past time to retire the Internet as a scapegoat for journalistic ills,' wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich on June 10. 'It's a medium, not a message, and it can be used as irresponsibly or as honorably as a printing press or a TV network can.'
Or, in the feistier words of Meeks, 'Mainstream journalists may engage in thumb-sucking sessions that target Drudge as the bad boy of Internet reporting. But in the end, it rests with the reader to sort through what is valid journalism and what is trash.'