The End Of The News As We Know It

The dust had barely settled on the blasted Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City last April when three residents started selling T-shirts ($11 each, proceeds going to the relief effort) that proudly displayed their support for the local police. Given the perky, fresh-scrubbed boosterism that seems to bubble like petroleum just beneath the surface of Oklahoma, you might have expected the T-shirts to say something like "OK City Cops Are OK by Me!"

Instead they read, "Hey! Connie Chung ... Bite Me!"

The ostensible, proximate reason was that the CBS Evening News co-anchor had insulted Oklahoma police and firemen by suggesting on-air that they were so overwhelmed by the bombed-out federal building that they couldn't possibly handle the rest of the city as well. In fact, there is no real evidence that Chung actually said anything like that (a CBS spokesperson denies it), nor are the T-shirts typical of Oklahoma City's reaction to the national media. In fact, they are decidedly atypical -- a fact driven home when a visibly touched Wolf Blitzer held up for the camera one of the brown paper bags, filled with cookies and decorated with flowers, hearts, and thank-yous scrawled by Oklahoma City school children, that had been distributed to the national press corps and rescue workers the week of the disaster.

The kind of people who helped their kids bake cookies for the nice national celebrities who dropped by to see the local holocaust are not likely to meet Connie Chung on the sidewalk and make her feel hated. But local computer bulletin boards were alive with media criticism as coverage unfolded. We must assume that to the three patriotic ladies who printed up the T-shirts, Connie is not actually a person -- she's more of a virtual person, really, like Max Headroom, a two-dimensional image they could never talk back to before. What's so telling about the T-shirt story is the combination of uncharacteristic nastiness and rapid turnaround: from the bombing to Chung's supposed on-air gaffe to talkin' trash T-shirts took four days -- more like the response time for an Internet flame, and more chock-full of neg emotions than vanilla T-shirt street poetry ever is.

Actually, the Oklahoma bombing was the first major national media event to be shaped, presented, nuanced, and possibly even scripted on the Internet. And that has not only made clear the obsolescence of one-way broadcasters like Connie Chung, but has exposed the remarkably persuasive powers committed activists can wield in cyberspace.

President Clinton and a host of pundits, of course, laid the blame for right-wing violence on the attack dogs of talk radio, like Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy, who after the bombing softened his advice to those confronted by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from aim for "head shots" because "they've got vests" to "shoot to the groin." Talk radio is angry, all right, but this isn't the only way it resembles the voices on the Internet -- it's also a crude form of interactive media: A listener hears a program, agrees or disagrees, grabs a phone and "interacts," usually by shouting his opinion on the air. As an information loop it is not unlike an Internet forum, moving from broadcast to public personal response and back again. This echoes any number of pop culture titles that approximate cyber interaction (movies like The Hunt for Red October, based on a novel developed from a computer game, or Star Trek: Generations, with its time travel plot twist that allows Captain Picard to repeat his fight scene until he gets it right, are familiar examples).

Although talk radio had the "name" personalities, it was the World Wide Web that made a major breakthrough in April. The prestige of the Internet and the threat it poses to older, mainstream media are now so great that nearly every journalistic outlet covering the Oklahoma story either mentioned the Net or appealed to its aesthetics. Some of the special graphics that decorated the "bumpers" -- the two -- to three-second segues into and out of commercial breaks that act as title cards for network coverage-took their design cues from the look of Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows program, breaking the screen into a series of framed rectangles, like computer screen icons. CNN, for example, filled the background with a muted shot of the collapsed federal building and dragged different insets-of survivors, family members, rescuers, and so on-across the screen to preview each segment.

The vague suggestion was that viewers were "selecting" the next topic. This was no more true than the story carried three days after the bombing by NBC's Dateline, which breathlessly announced that Timothy McVeigh's log-on on America Online listed "Organic Bombs" as a hobby and gave his occupation as "Mad Bomber ... with my associates from the Michigan Militia." But the act of selection is one of the talismanic advantages of interactivity, and this was TV's attempt at fostering an illusion. It resembles the fad for "interactive learning stations" at natural history and art exhibits, which break information into discontinuous, often counterintuitive bits in order to give children the "interactive" pleasure of pressing a number of buttons. Somehow, learning about the computer always seems to be the real lesson.

All this is just Window-dressing, of course, a silly symptom of the age. The most profound role played by the Net in the Oklahoma bombing had begun to play out long before April 19.

Cyberhate Comes Of Age

"This is probably the first major social movement in the U.S. that was organized primarily on the information superhighway, in new electronic media," says Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing hate groups at Boston think-tank Political Research Associates. The extreme right-wing has been using the Net (at sites called "Cyberhate" or "White Pride Worldwide") to organize for at least two years. In the process, the Internet has become the holodeck of the American political psyche, helping to create an alternative vision of U.S. history as seamless and conspiratorial as any of the fantasies in The Elders of Zion.

The bombing was not only a virtual event, endlessly discussed on bulletin boards and in newsgroups (within a few days, CompuServe had set up GO OKCITY, with news updates, CNN video, and sites to learn phone numbers for volunteering, sending money, or inquiring about relatives or friends). The terrorists' plot may have even begun with an Internet rumor. Last February an anonymous message appeared on the Net warning of coordinated federal action to disarm the militias all around the country on March 24. It was supported by what appeared to be an internal Justice Department memorandum discussing the tactics for just such a nationwide raid. Subsequent postings on the Web monitored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center showed a marked increase in anti-government propaganda; many of the messages speculated that the black choppers of the border anti-drug task force stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, would spearhead a massive raid on private arms caches. In mid-March, the National Rifle Association posted another message on its own listserv confirming the warning.

"What's so amazing about this event," Berlet says, "is how quickly it took place. If you look at this in the light of social movement theory, it takes usually four things to organize a mass social movement: you need a disaffected group, with real or imagined grievances; this group needs leaders with a strategic vision; the views are then pegged and shaped around a galvanizing event; and the entire process involves one or more forms of communication to unite people."

The NRA message inspired several congressmen to write letters of protest to Attorney General Janet Reno, warning that another "bloody fiasco like Waco" would "risk an irreparable breach" between the government and its public. (Among this gun-loving crew was Texas representative John Stockman, the hapless piece of right-wing Velcro whose office received a mysterious fax from a former Texas GOP county chair named Libby Molley -- now working for Michigan Militia leader Mark Koernke -- detailing the impact of the explosion just minutes after it had occurred.) The Justice Department said the big raid rumor was completely unfounded, but it nonetheless set off a surge of Internet traffic on extremist forums such as talk.politics.guns and misc.activism.militia. Many e-mail messages carried recipes for bombs or called for armed attacks on key civilian targets; an NRA board member recommended making bombs from jelly jars and shotgun shells, and warned the world that when the ATF came for his guns, they better "bring a lunch, 'cause it's gonna be a Goddamn long day."

When the March 24 raid failed to materialize and, instead, a former Michigan Militia hanger-on was arrested for the Murrah office building explosion, the virtual momentum of the cybertribes never broke stride. Soon messages like this one appeared: "So they couldn't strike in the open after the memo leaked. Now they begin their black campaign by killing people in the heartland in order to spread as much terror as possible. Expect a crackdown. Bury your guns and use the codes."

By early May some extremist newsgroups were receiving over 5,000 messages a day, many of them explaining how to build and detonate ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs, including "complete details of the bomb used in Oklahoma City, and how it was used and how it could have been better."

"The half-life of the anti-war movement in the 1960s," says Berlet, "which had a small violent segment, but as a movement included millions of non-violent Americans, stretched from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s. Because of talk radio, shortwave, and the Internet, this movement, which maybe has five million people around the country, coalesced overnight."

A Medium Made For Single-Issue Politics

The Justice Department memo about the big raid was, like Timothy McVeigh's America Online listing, a hoax. But it was a particularly effective hoax. Most of us are no better at recognizing the forgeries now made possible by computerization than the admissions department at Yale, which recently revoked a senior's degree because it found he had created his previous scholastic record with his PC. In cyberspace, people don't receive information but data bits, and each bit can be used to build a more convincing reality of the user's own choice, in the same way that more RAM can make a CD-ROM light simulator smoother, with better pictorial resolution and more life-like action.

Anyone who has worked for progressive causes knows that the most difficult task facing an activist is breaking through the fog of American entertainment, with its unceasing flattery of its consumers, to communicate an alternative, perhaps unpleasant view of reality that demands attention and effort. This is not made easier by an almost infinitely diverting household appliance that reflects the ego like a mirrored ball.

Out there among the lonely, mostly white, mostly male, mostly defensive-about-the-trend-of-modern-manhood Net surfers, the right has found fertile ground. The Net can neatly fulfill the peculiarly male need for personally affirming companionship that carries no threat of intimacy. Cyberspace relationships offer participants a far higher degree of control than flesh-and-blood encounters. People who meet in cyberspace do so because they already agree -- everyone you talk to at misc.activism.militia shares pretty much the same view of full-auto K-47s in the home, drum or banana clip. It's a medium made for single-issue politics. Inside the computer, a statistically insignificant minority can echo back upon itself to grow in volume till it sounds like an army tramping across a bridge, each like-minded myrmidon in constant touch with the whole. Dissent, even doubt, can disappear.

Beyond uncritically reflecting back each user's prejudices and preconceptions, reducing opponents to less than blips, forming your political views without the reality check and intellectual tension of interacting in public with differing points of view encourages a sort of frathouse nastiness that drowns out true discourse. Like Ollie North, every surfer has the power to simply shred anyone who disagrees with him: Byte Me, Connie Chung. In that sense, the Net is an inherently conservative medium. Given the rule of thumb that Democrats identify social problems and devise social solutions for them while the GOP protects individual economic freedom, is it any wonder that 48 percent of Net users told Newsweek they are Republicans and only 24 percent admitted to being Democrats?

The Net, hailed in the '80s as a unifying force that would bring people together, now seems to be contributing to the splintering of our society. And it is unnerving to free speech advocates. In the wake of the Oklahoma City disaster, all sorts of people-even liberals like Ted Kennedy, the first senator to have his own homepage on the Internet -- started to call for regulating the kinds of political speech allowed in cyberspace. The mainstream press, still catching on, has expressed a degree of outrage at the posting of bomb-making recipes on-line that rivals its reaction 27 years ago to the "How to Make a Molotov Cocktail" cover of the New York Review of Books. And although the New York Review piece was never connected to any specific act of protest, the FBI is already reported to be searching the Net for "evidence" related to the bombing-a capability no one even knew the bureau had before April.

The Passing Of Patriotism

The Net has lost its innocence in blood, the way American institutions usually do. It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. After all, the dawn of Internet political mobilization rose-quite peacefully -- on the Left, where, early on, the nonprofit Institute for Global Communications set up EcoNet and PeaceNet to facilitate communication among ecologically minded activists and political progressives. For colleges and universities there was the Center for Campus Organizing, a national resource facility that linked 350 campuses to coordinate student protests-such as the one last March 29 against the Republican Contract With America involving over 100 schools. Today, there are at least 1,500 political groups listed on the Yahoo Web index, including everything from Project Vote Smart to the American Association of Retired Persons.

Still, these criticisms of computerized politics -- exclusion of the full community, a tendency toward conspiracy theory and paranoia, the drowning out of discourse -- apply equally to all these forums, whatever their political orientation. Besides, what really threatens baby boomers like Connie Chung is not the bent of this or that group on the Internet but the fading of major media organizations' hegemonic control over the information piped electronically into American homes. And, more than that, it is the disappearance of a national consensus. As the technology develops, it becomes more apparent that the boomers were the last generation to luxuriate in the myth of a common American dream -- in the days of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests, everyone from coast to coast was somehow touched by the same social upheavals. When true interactivity is finally achieved by the fledgling Net, and people can conduct much of their business and the routines of their daily lives without ever leaving their homes, why would they accept anything so crudely drawn, so seemingly arbitrary, as a national identity? What is geography to the reliable confirmations of a fiber optic cable? Wouldn't they find more in common with some more defined site on the Web-like me.mine.only?

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