How Time Magazine Promoted A Cyberhoax
Call it the Time Magazine Cyberhoax of 1995. The nation's most widely read newsweekly got snookered -- or, more precisely, snookered itself -- in a frenzy to beat the competition with a racy cover story about pornography on the Internet. The cover of Time's July 3 issue was shocking. It showed a young child at a computer keyboard, with "CYBERPORN" printed in big blue letters under his chin. Just below was a startling headline -- "Exclusive: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is." Inside were eight pages of lurid graphics and articles, depicting a cyberworld of pornography available to any child with a few keystrokes. But it turns out that Time's coverage gave off much more prurient heat than journalistic light. Now, even Time comes close to admitting that its ballyhooed cover story was based on bunkum. Originally, Time proclaimed that online "83.5 percent of the pictures were pornographic" in "Usenet newsgroups." But in the magazine's July 24 issue, a nine-paragraph article (on page 57) backpedals at a trot if not a gallop. Maybe the 83.5 percent figure was misleading, Time notes somewhat sheepishly. Eminent scholars point out that pornographic files amount to "less than one-half of 1 percent of all messages posted on the Internet." The magazine's tone underwent quite a change, too. The cover story identified the author of the research report, Marty Rimm, as "the study's principal investigator." But, three weeks later, Time describes him as someone who wrote it "while an undergraduate" at Carnegie Mellon University. And the cover story hyped a university "research team" that "conducted an exhaustive study of online porn." Three weeks later, the facade had crumbled: "Some of the researchers listed as part of Rimm's 'team' now say their involvement was minimal; at least one of them had asked Rimm to remove his name." Time's multi-page spread and its postscript failed to mention that Rimm's study never underwent academic peer review. The bottom line: Time was so eager to be able to claim an "exclusive" that it promised to shield the study from qualified evaluation before it hit the newsstands. Time agreed not to show the study to a single expert in advance. And the magazine's cover story didn't let readers know about that deal. "We should have," admits Time senior editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who wrote the cover story. In several thousand words, there was no critical analysis of the touted study. That too was a mistake, Elmer-DeWitt told us in a July 19 interview: "We should have given readers the information that questions had been raised about the methodology....I screwed up. I should have done it." In July, key contentions of the study -- and Time's cover story -- collapsed under the weight of well-aimed critiques from academic specialists like Vanderbilt University associate professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak. Three weeks after Time's "CYBERPORN" cover arrived in supermarket racks and mailboxes, the magazine reported: "Now that they have seen the study, Hoffman and Novak say that Marty Rimm...grossly exaggerated the extent of pornography on the Internet." But the mess created by Time's journalistic non-standards has hardly been cleaned up. A half-hearted correction on a back page doesn't come near to catching up to a cover story. When Time opened the door, others -- inside and outside the mass media -- rushed through. A couple of days after Time's cyberhoax cover story came out, ABC's Nightline ran with the story. Tonight, Ted Koppel somberly intoned, "cybersex: policing pornography on the Internet." The first voice on the program belonged to Rimm, whose research data went unchallenged -- but hardly unmentioned. Within minutes it had become "the Carnegie study," cited as authoritative by ABC News correspondent Dave Marash. Later on in the program, Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed was using phrases like "according to the Carnegie Mellon survey" to buttress his call for government censorship of the Internet. Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was eagerly citing "the Carnegie Mellon study" as justification for federal restrictions on Internet content. Finally acknowledging a behind-the-scenes deal, the July 24 issue of Time strained to put the best face on it -- reporting that Professor Hoffman and Time "were constrained by exclusivity terms imposed by the [Georgetown] Law Journal that prevented her from seeing the full study before Time's cover went to press." (However, Kathryn Ruemmler, the editor of the Georgetown Law Journal, which scheduled publication of the complete study, told us that the Journal imposed no such restriction on Time magazine. Time's assertion that it had, she said, was "false -- unequivocally false.") "It's not as though Time imposed anything on anybody," Time's public-affairs director, Robert Pondiscio, said in an interview. "We had something imposed on us." But in this dance between shoddy academic work and shoddy journalism, it took two to tango. Here's an analogy: Imagine agreeing to buy a house on the condition that you couldn't have it inspected by any construction experts until after you'd bought it. In its muted mea culpa, Time concluded: "It would be a shame...if the damaging flaws in Rimm's study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet." Perhaps. But it would be an even bigger shame if concern about Internet porn were to obscure the perversion of journalism by the country's most powerful newsmagazine.