TIME and again — shoddy journalism and the net critics

TIME Magazine publishes an article regarding important legislation before the the United States Congress. The article is based on some flimsy research, and netizens immediately pounce on it. The article’s author addresses his critics online, and the magazine publishes a correction, sort of. Online media critics, particularly at Wired magazine, are unsatisfied.

Joe Klein, and his column over the FISA bill in 2007? No, Philip Elmer-Dewitt and the “Cyberporn” cover story in 1995. Both Klein and Elmer-DeWitt, were roasted by liberals/libertarians of handing conservatives a political victory on a speech/privacy issue.

What triggered my search was an offhand observation by Dan Gillmor: “It’s almost inconceivable that Klein and his employers would have even bothered to issue their half-baked corrections had this all occurred a decade ago or earlier.”

But a dozen years ago, at the dawn of the era of online journalism, the same magazine and its reporter was called to task, as Time explained in its half-baked apology, “by computer users on the Internet.” The main difference today is that they’d be called bloggers. But the methods and motivations haven’t changed much.

The story has been forgotten in part because many of the key sources from the time are no longer at their original URLs. Some are only recoverable through the Internet Archive, which came into being the next year. The original Time article was on the Time-Warner’s PathFinder portal, as was Elmer-DeWitt’s followup. The response from Wired was the JournoPorn series on the HotWired websites. Both of these online offshoots were scuttled (and their links broken) in 1999 when both magazines brought their “online only” content back under the main branded website.

There’s a few key differences between yesterday and today. Joe Klein’s column was written in the wake of the FISA legislation, and he argued that the Democrats were going to take it on the chin for appearing to place civil liberties above national security. The column was really about politics, not policy.

The year 1995, like this year, marked a transition year for the United States Congress. Then, the Republicans found themselves in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years; it was also sixty years since the nation’s communications laws had last been re-written for the dawn of the broadcast age. The Telecommunications Act was drafted, and in June the “Communications Decency Act” was introduced as an amendment (criminalizing not just obscene, but “indecent” materials). Time had a scoop: a forthcoming paper from “a research team at Carnegie Mellon University,” which was going to be published in the Georgetown Law Journal, would give some numbers as to the amount of pornography online.

Only a handful of academic were reached about the coming study – and only then, to review the footnotes. One of them leaked the story’s announcement to Shabbir Safdar, a Unix security consultant for Goldman Sachs who had begun an online advocacy group Voters Telecommunications Watch after graduating college. When the CDA was introduced, he began an online newsletter BillWatch to track federal legislation of interest. It was issue #6 on Friday June 23rd which had passed along the scoop. Within two hours, a subscriber forwarded it to the “Newsweeklies” conference on the WELL bulletin board based out of San Francisco:

Time is expected to put out an issue this coming Monday that will contain a study of how much pornography is being transferred on the Internet. The catch is that no one even knows if the study’s methods are valid, because no one is being allowed to read it due to an exclusive deal between Time and the institution that funded the study. Rumor Central is taking this opportunity to ask the editors of Time to let us see a copy of the study so we can see if the methodology is truly worthy of the high standards we hold Time’s Science and Technology staff to uphold.

Today the presumption is that the sheer numbers of the blogosphere are required to ferret out the truth. But it doesn’t take very many people to smell a rat – especially when it’s dangled in front of them. The WELL was the gathering place of the “digerati,” the journalists and activists and anybodies who cared about the emerging net culture, and it was just the place to dissect the article.

Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University immediately pounced on it the next morning. A few hours later, the article’s author himself, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, showed up to defend the work, noting that no one has seen it; this elicited the response from Hoffman about the lockout. As Brook Meeks related the chronology (from the transcripts) a heated debate ensued. Steven Levy, Elmer-DeWitt’s counterpart at Newsweek, chortled at the exclusive deal, and Elmer-DeWitt fired back about about Newsweek‘s exclusive purchase of the Hitler Diaries. (In 1983, the magzine had paid $3 million for them, and was doubly humiliated when they turned out to be fake.) Elmer-Dewitt later apologized for that, but otherwise begged his challengers to wait until the story was published.

What a difference a decade makes. Today, the arguments between Joe Klein and Glenn Greenwald were like ships passing in the night. Klein didn’t even mention Greenwarld by name (though, as our statistics demonstrate, Greenwald has much higher wattage than Klein in the blogosphere). Back then, there was a vituperous conversation between the key players – before the story even went online!

The attention helped bring to backstory. The Carnegie Mellon “research team” didn’t have anybody else besides Martin Rimm, a 30-year old undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon. Elmer-DeWitt first encountered Rimm when he wrote an article the previous fall about Rimm’s preliminary work in documenting the volume of pornographic material on USENET. Rimm brough the evidence to the administration, which felt that state laws on obscenity required it to block the binaries newsgroups after the study. They relented only after a massive student protest and after a faculty senate voted to recommended to restore it. (To think that we students of the 1990’s did not pick just causes!) Rimm continued his research, and flattered Elmer-DeWitt enough to secure the exclusive story. With the CDA bill being debated in the Senate, the editors made it a front page story, and added some ridiculous graphics (such as a man dry-humping a computer monitor.)

On the whole, Elmer-Dewitt’s article was “competent, fair, balanced, and intelligent,” as Howard Rheingold wrote. But the criticisms stung him for relying too much on the “exclusive” Rimm paper. The kicker: “What the Carnegie Mellon researchers discovered was: THERE’S AN AWFUL LOT OF PORN ONLINE. In an 18-month study, the team surveyed 917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips. On those Usenet newsgroups where digitized images are stored, 83.5% of the pictures were pornographic.”

And those were the statistics that Senator Chuck Grassley brandished when he waved the issue on the Senate floor the that Monday.

Elmer-DeWitt suffered enough for it and wrote a followup in the magazine (half-baked or not is in the eye of the beholder.) He told Gary Brickman of Hotwired: “it’s probably unprofessional of me to disclose this, but I’m really on Mike Godwin’s side. The last thing I wanted to do was hand the Christian Coalition ammunition.” As far as Wikipedia has ascertained, Rimm disappeared from public view shortly thereafter.

Other consequences were more far-ranging.

First, a number of Rimm’s critics contended that he hadn’t distinguished between the public USENET newsgroups and the dialup adult BBSes which required a credit card for payment. As high-speed bandwidth came around, the adult BBSes faded from view, and graphics yielded to movies. In chronicling “JournoPorn,” the regularly optimistic Wired had pooh-poohed the state of porn: “Cottage porn sites run out of their owners’ homes are often unreliable and difficult to find.” Today, both pay and free pornography are so readily available that this salient fact of Internet life has been captured in a catchy Broadway song.

Second, the CDA was DOA. The day the bill was signed, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in district court in Philadelphia, and a three judge panel ruled the law unconstitutional four months later. The Supreme Court sustained the lower court’s ruling in 1997 by a vote of 7-2. (Justice O’Connor’s dissent held out for an actual test case to demonstrate the harm).

Third, the issue had supercharged the careers of a number of net activists/journalists. When CMU shut down the pornographic newsgroups, the Associated Press article quoted Declan McCollough, then the student body president. McCullagh was inspired to start an email list called Fight Censorship. The archives are still missing, but the genesis of it was described in a 1998 Wired article on popular mailing lists (by which time the list had been renamed to its present name PoliTech). After graduation, McCullagh went on to write for HotWired and Time-Warner’s short-lived “Netly News,” before becoming a regular correspondent for c|net. With Brock Meeks, MuCullagh wrote a breakthrough article on Internet filtering software (seen by many as a palatable alternative to government censorship). The article, posted to their respective mailing lists on July 3rd 1996 (a year to the day after the CyberPorn issue date) was called “The Keys to the Kingdom.” The “keys” were the proprietary codes used by the filtering software which listed the how sites would be banned, and filtering mechanisms used. Some filtering software apparently were blocking the website GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation); others apparently blocked gun-rights websites. The codes were given to McCullagh by a hacker identified only as “Red.” The research and article formed the basis of a story in Time the next year, “Censor’s Sensibility.”In 2000, Red’s lawyer revealed him to be Seth Finkelstein.

Fourth, Seth is one of the most intriguing Internet activists of the period who has vocally retired from the censorship debate. Seth has directly informed my own thinking for the last three years, by challenging me to worry less about absolute censorship than about audience and power effects in conditioning communications. The latter happens to a much greater degree in free societies. It’s still a very difficult point to make, and my own work here has tried to analyze the technological basis of such effects (see The New Gatekeepers.)

Fifth, back in 1995, reporters seemed fully in agreement that only academic papers that were “vetted” by “peer review” should get passed along to the public. But those days are gone; the blog evangelists have led the charge that the “old gatekeepers” be tossed aside. These days, any academic in a social science wanting to route around the old gatekeepers of academic journals and trade publications can reach the world on a blog. Peer review, for many practical purposes, has yielded to peer echo.

Much has changed on the Internet over the last decade-plus. But what hasn’t changed is the ability of qualified readers to pick apart shoddy journalism and engender public support in doing so.