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Two Forums for Idea Exchanges


By E. CHARLES Mallett

What's this about the Internet? Wasn't the telecommunications bill passed weeks ago? Well, aren't you being short-sighted. I have the right to address this issue; although the Internet and the media share some common ground, the press was not affected by the bill's speech restrictions. And I am fully aware that the American people say the short-sightedness of the media is part of the reason for its bad reputation today.

Shortsightedness has moral implications for newspapers. Fact-checking has become almost obsolete because of the competitive race to publish exciting stories as soon as possible. Press releases have increasingly become unquestioned sources for news articles. Public relations representatives, knowing that the releases often are not scanned before being published, modify data to serve their purposes. They have the opportunity to rehash actual data to appeal to readers and gain attention.

On the other hand, the media should not absorb all of the blame. The shortsightedness of the media subtly mirrors the short attention span of the public. Papers are reluctant to fact-check because the public seems to have little interest for accurate reporting. The sensational always works. The public dislikes deep analysis because it's not interesting.

Americans shout their standard litany for their uncharacteristic general distrust of the media. Like the government, the media is elitist. Television news reporters pander to the ratings. The media plays to public sensibility by displaying the fantastic, the outrageous, the lurid.

But we always fall into the same trap. We want news that is interesting. We want news that is late-breaking. We want news that is exciting and that spurs excitement, disgust, lust. It must. It must. Or else we tune out and go about our business. The press often fills that inner need for stimulation but not without a backlash in negative public opinion.

In a way, Americans ultimately govern the press. What goes on television and, for the most part, what is printed on the cover page of popular newspapers is what excites public attention, sells papers and increases ratings. The news reflects upon the American psyche and conforms to it. Because Americans respond negatively to a media that they have had a large stake in creating, one can only conclude that America is not up for some self-examination.

So the signing of the telecommunications bill on Feb. 8 necessitated some serious reflection on the part of Americans. The government tightened speech restrictions on the Internet, prohibiting discussion of sexually indecent material and abortion. The Internet is now only a former symbol of uncensored free exchange.

The press and the Internet share some common ground. The Internet, like the press, is supposedly a form of free expression. Both are supposedly limited by government intrusion: The press is accused of colluding with the Washington elite, while the Internet is now limited by government censorship. Both involve First Amendment issues, the "freedom of the press" and the "freedom of speech."

But the American people perceive the Internet and the press differently. The Internet, with its seemingly unlimited potential for exchanging information, is primarily seen as an engine for grass-roots activism. The press is perceived as a maintainer of the status quo, as a part of the Washington elite.

The issues are not that simple, though. Although the Internet is a free-for-all, it is not free, and only those who can afford an Internet connection and have adequate computer skills can actually use the Internet. So, the Internet is hardly grass-roots. The press, on the other hand, is not obviously controlled by this country's elite because that elitism is somewhat lost in pandering to public interests.

That's why Americans are thinking, "what are our views toward the Internet?" I perceive it as a a free-for-all only for those who have the means to access it. What do we think about the press? In my opinion, the press is a public reflector, but on the other hand, it is somewhat controlled by ambiguous press releases and the personal convictions of its "elitist" staffing.

I see the Internet as a potentially inspiring instrument, a way to get everyone involved in the political process--but not with speech restrictions. I think the press could serve its function best as an analytical tool and shed light on the issues that fly by, to provide depth and context to the events occuring. But, as of now, Americans are not up for that kind of examination. In our anti-intellectual climate, thoroughness is not what gives ratings a boost, and so the press is forced into narrow-minded showmanship.

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