Questioning Technology: Information Without Limits

On the Internet, anyone can be a broadcaster. Over 400 TV stations, nearly 1,000 radio stations and over 1600 newspapers are already operating web sites. Thousands more organizations and individuals are now broadcasting audio and video content over the Net.The attraction of webcasting is compelling. This hybrid of print, images and audio is the cheapest, most powerful medium ever available to those who want to get their ideas to a large audience without having to deal with the powers that be.With Net broadcasting, there's no FCC, no censorship (yet) and no corporate gatekeepers creating boundaries around programming. For now, it's truly a broadcasting medium without limits. Therein lies the problem. As any successful creative person can tell you, good communications craft requires self discipline. The fact that the distribution medium has no limits does not mean that all the time-proven rules of effective storytelling can be arbitrarily tossed aside. Doing so usually results in sloppy, poorly executed work that leaves outsiders scratching their heads in confusion over the meaning of the message. This is one of the reasons writers -- even the best ones -- appreciate good editors. (Bad editors, of course, are a different story.) A good editor challenges the writer to bring clarity to the text. If the subject is news or information, the editor forces the writer to offer documentation and a solid foundation for the story being told. The best writer-editor relationships result in a continuing back and forth exchange that eventually hones the work into a clear, concise presentation of the story. Three veteran "old media" newsmen think one of the big problems with information delivery over the Internet is a lack of good editing. Many Internet journalists and webcasters, they say, ramble on endlessly with drivel and rumors that they have made no effort to verify. Because of this increasing dissemination of bad information, a broad brush of distrust, they say, is tainting the credibility of the entire Internet. "News is a craft," said Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News. "Somebody has to go get it. If you're lucky, it's somebody who knows what they are doing."So much of what passes for news today, whether on TV, cable or the Internet, is a group of commentators "sitting around and repeating what they read in this morning's New York Times," said Frank. "That doesn't amount to very much."The fact that the Internet has no gatekeeper does not mean content producers should eliminate the function of the editor, said Sander Vanocur, a veteran print and broadcast correspondent who is now an anchor on The History Channel."There's too much information and too little judgement," said Vanocur of today's freewheeling information media on both television and the Internet. He cited the excellent training he got in the early days of his journalistic career as a hard-pressed wire service reporter. "We were edited very strictly," he recalled. "It was a cruel and hard apprenticeship. Mostly done by older men...a few of them drunks, disappointed in life and in love. But this apprenticeship instilled in us a sense of what you could put in and what you should leave out, what was right and what was wrong. Once you had it, it was like learning Latin as a child, you rarely made mistakes thereafter. You knew it instinctively." Former NBC correspondent Edwin Newman, a connoisseur of the written word, sees the media explosion of recent years as a phenomenon of "too much information, misinformation and ready opinion." Webcasting, he feels, is simply an extension of a society that already lives amidst too much noise. "There's a virtual disappearance of quiet," said Newman. "It's disturbing that so many people these days, especially young people, never want it. They seem to think they are being cheated if quiet exists. There's a constant need for banging music or to have someone blabbering away at them. I see the Internet as an aspect of this. "I'm a great believer in reading," he continued. "Not because I've written some books, but because I think being able to sit down and read and think is desirable. What we are seeing now tends to lessen the time given to thought...the time given to solitude."Many advocates of webcasting celebrate the end of the time restraints that have long restricted the length of news stories on television. That, says Reuven Frank, is a myth. "News comes in finite packages, not just a (continuous) stream," he said."You are still constrained by time on the Internet," said Frank. "The time you are constrained by is the attention span at the receiving end. When people get too much information, they just turn off. I think they are already doing it, even without the Internet." Information overload, he said, accounts for the steadily declining audience for newspapers, radio and television. "With the Internet, I think it will become more extreme."Will the Internet eventually live up to its potential as a new mass medium that successfully merges the printed word with sound and images? "I don't know; that's such a guess," said Frank. "I think that each substantial change like this takes a generation to accomplish. You have people growing up with it, not people harkening back to the way things used to be. You can't really get a new form (of media) until you get a new generation."

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