All The News Thatís Fit To Misprint.
Copyright 1997 by Christopher Flaherty
(written 3/20/97; revised 3/27/97 & 3/31/97)
I like surfing the Internet. I enjoy being on-line, and I love the World Wide Web. The New York
Times, for one, has a fine web site. On March 19, 1997, on that same site, I was browsing
through up-to-the-minute news stories from the Associated Press, and saw an article about the
Supreme Court's planned hearing of the Communications Decency Act ("Court Venture Into
Cyberspace"). I was extremely disappointed with what I read, and Iíd like to share with you now
some of the many lapses in "objective" journalism this article has made.
[Click here to see the entire AP article, which I did
not include with the op-ed when I sent it to the Times]
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Taking a first look at free speech on the Internet, the Supreme Court is considering whether Congress can make it a crime to put indecent words or pictures online where children can find them.
Note that the lead paragraph automatically makes this a "children" issue--as opposed to a free
speech issue--making any opposition to the issue look suspicious. After all, someone against this
law (not that the word "law" or "legislation" is mentioned in that same above paragraph, but that's not
the point) must be against children too, right? As if the sole purpose of anyone putting so-
called "indecent words or pictures online" is to put them "where children can find them"! The AP
doesn't even bother to say "so-called" or "alleged" indecency. No, that term has been conceded to
Congress & Janet Reno, assuming everyone already knows what indecency is, saving the AP the
trouble from having to define it so that people know what they're talking about, and perhaps working
up some sympathy for the opposition in the process.
A three-judge federal court in Philadelphia blocked the law from taking effect last year, saying it would unlawfully chill adults' right to sexually oriented material.
As if that's all the judges said! Having read that entire decision, the very least that can be said is
that it was not limited strictly to "adults' right to sexually oriented material." All
3 judges understood that the CDA threatened all kinds of speech on the Internet, and that the CDA
went against the very nature of the Internet in the process. The Justices used the words
"unconstitutional" and "unconstitutionally" in their opinion no less than 29 times, according to my own word search. If the AP had
bothered to actually include the part of the opinion which had the word "chill" in it, you might have
"The chilling effect on the Internet users' exercise of free speech is obvious. . . . This is
precisely the vice of vagueness." (Justice Buckwalter)
" . . . above all, I believe that the challenged provisions are so vague as to violate both the First
and Fifth Amendments. . . . The fundamental constitutional principle that concerns me is one of
simple fairness, and that is absent in the CDA." (Justice Buckwalter)
There are numerous other quotes which show the judges clearly saw this as a free speech issue, but
obviously the AP was not interested in that.
The Internet was described by a lower-court judge as a "never-ending worldwide conversation" that has produced "a kind of chaos."
There are no other descriptions of the Internet within the article, leaving the uninformed reader to
conclude that the Internet is nothing more than a chaotic conversation full of people who reserve the
right to show indecent words and pictures to children. The AP doesn't even have the courtesy to
place these quotes from the decision in context, which of course I'll now do for them:
"Cutting through the acronyms and argot that littered the hearing testimony, the Internet may
fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the
CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the
Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion." (Justice Dalzell)
"The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of
chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: ĎWhat achieved
success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos.í . . .
Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos
and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects. For these reasons, I
without hesitation hold that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face." (Justice Dalzell)
"The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: ĎWhat achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos.í . . . Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects. For these reasons, I without hesitation hold that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face." (Justice Dalzell)
Funny how a more well-rounded description emerges when whole sentences of the decision are
reproduced instead of just fragments.
Indecent material could be provided by restricting access to people using a credit card or adult-access code. But those who challenged the law said that would be too expensive, particularly for nonprofit organizations.
Notice how only the government's ideas for restricting access (i.e., placing the burden of restriction
and age verification on the person creating the content) are presented. There is absolutely
no mention of the very well-publicized methods of restricting access which were endorsed by
the opposition (i.e., placing the burden on the person viewing the content), such as Net
Nanny, Cyber Sitter, and Surf Watch--methods which were also recognized by the 3-judge panel as
being a more preferable alternative to unconstitutional (need I repeat this one more time?)
restrictions on free speech! Just an oversight by the AP? Or an intentional omission?
The challengers said the law would restrict access not only to sexually explicit pictures, but to discussion of issues including safe sex, homosexuality or prison rape.
And Catcher in the Rye, and Ulysses, and AIDS Prevention--but those aren't
potentially "offensive" buzz words like homosexuality and prison rape. As if all the opponents of the
CDA were interested in was making sure your kids had unrestricted access to information on
prisoners being raped!
This biggest accomplishment of this article is the perpetuation of the myth that the Internet is
mostly made up of perverts, porn addicts, and child molesters; completely ignoring any and all free
speech issues that may be at stake. There is no excuse for this sort of untamed bias within one of
Americaís largest media conglomerates, especially when articles from the AP are used every hour
in every branch of print, radio, TV, and even Internet news as sources for future articles--often with
very little alteration--spreading the misinformation even further. Some may object to my using
the word "bias" in describing the environment which allows articles like this one to see the light of
day, but consider how these stories are created:
The conditions under which this story was probably written
(I base this on personal experience and observation)--
intensely short deadlines, a lack of or unwillingness to find diverse sources, and a pressure or
directive to reduce the story to only the most basic terms--all combine to create "news" which either
informs the reader of little, or--even worse--misinforms the reader of a lot. Usually, the result is having only
one point of view dominate, even if a second point of view is present (and in that particular AP
story, the opposing "free speech" viewpoint definitely got the short shrift), giving the story a bias
even if none was ever intended.
Is there a concrete effort being made by groups like the AP to make sure certain points of view
aren't represented in their stories? Itís very possible, depending on which media outlet and which
story is involved (like, for example, ABCís unwillingness to do stories on nuclear plant safety, as
documented by FAIR). And more than once within this decade, whole groups of "the media" (e.g.,
ABC, NBC, and CBS; or, more locally, the New York Post and the Daily News) either refuse to see or just aren't
aware of differing viewpoints regarding certain stories, such as the Gulf War, Marijuana Legalization,
and Richard Nixon's funeral, to name a select few.
Are laziness and indifference the main causes of apparent bias in stories about those and other
events? Perhaps they are, and that sounds like a more likely scenario as opposed to some master
planner going through each story with a checklist deciding what can and cannot be seen in print,
etc. But the constant dismissing, disregarding, and misrepresenting of certain viewpoints by many
widely read and sourced media outlets (such as the AP) cannot be the result of mere incompetence
time and time again. Media outlets such as the AP and others either don't know that other points of
view exist (which I think is unlikely), don't think they're relevant (which is entirely possible), don't
care that they exist (which is equally possible), or misunderstand them and therefore misrepresent
them altogether (which is what I think happens most of the time). Are most of these
misunderstandings by accident, as opposed to by design? Again, it's hard to say, but when
this sort of thing happens day in, day out, year after year, I have to wonder if there isn't more to it
than people just not bothering to make the extra phone call here and there.
Of course, this doesn't mean "the media" overall is biased one way or another. It does mean that
"the mainstream media" (e.g., the conglomerate of news outlets I mentioned 2 paragraphs ago, plus
the AP) is, quite often, guilty of not adequately representing differing or truly opposing points of view
in many stories, causing a distinct bias to emerge--a bias which I believe is often ignorant of most views of
the left wing, often pro-corporate (the corporations in question depend on who owns the outlet) and
often unconcerned with fully explaining complex issues to its audience. This, to me, is very much
at odds with the same media's supposed ideal of presenting "objective" journalism to the public. It's
one thing to state your positions in advance, and then report about an event which either agrees or
clashes with them. It's another thing altogether to not state one's positions, and then go on to
report about an event with just as much personal bias as before, only without admitting that a bias
exists to begin with. It's the latter which I think happens more often than "the mainstream media"
itself would like to admit; and I think the above AP story regarding the CDA is a perfect example of
just such a bias taking place.
Yes, the factors leading up to such a poorly-produced story may have become so routine that they
are now ingrained, and perhaps even expected; but they are still unacceptable when the intent is--or
should be--to inform and educate the public using the facts in the most objective and concise way
possible. I donít think this is an unreachable goal, and I believe in many cases it can be done.
However, when it can't, or when it purposefully isn't done, it is imperative that the
writer/reporter be up front with either their subjectiveness or dearth of sources--whichever is more
appropriate. When a bias like that is not revealed, people can be lulled into thinking that
they are getting the most concise version of the most well-rounded news available, when that is
clearly not the case; and that is journalism of the worst kind.
(Of course, I make no secret about the pinko intentions of "Free New York," my weekly, public
access TV show in Manhattan; but it's precisely this kind of news story which convinces me that
shows like "Free New York" are necessary to begin with!)