One of the benefits of attending the birth of a new medium is the privilege of watching who comes creeping out of the woodwork with the intent of controlling or reworking our ability to communicate.
Reading Internet Web sites that provide news is instructive because of the tricks used to attract surfers. "Value-added" links, cross-references, and animated graphics are cute, but other efforts may have more serious implications.
MSNBC, the Web site created by Microsoft and the NBC all-news channel (unavailable on Canadian TV), recently started asking a question at the end of every story: "Would you recommend this story to other viewers?" Readers can move a slider bar to rate the story they may or may not have just read on a scale of 1 to 7.
On-line journalists have been grumbling about this in mailing lists and Usenet groups, suggesting that this is marketing, not journalism or interactivity. For that matter, it isn't even a scientific opinion poll.
They are worried that it is only a step away from MSNBC judging reporters on the basis of the votes they get. (A current top-10 list is maintained at http://www.msnbc/Top10.asp .)
MSNBC editor-in-chief Merrill Brown says the system will not affect his day-to-day news judgment, but he did admit that MSNBC (http://www.msnbc.com) has, as a direct result of the ratings system, started providing more stories on science, health, and that peculiar category, "news you can use".
Although rating stories may not matter much in the great scheme of things, MSNBC crossed some sort of line on June 5, when in the wake of a guilty verdict delivered in the Oklahoma City bombing two years ago that killed 168 people, MSNBC asked, "What sentence should Timothy McVeigh get?"
Mercifully, the results of that survey are no longer available; even the original question (http://www.msnbc.com/news/77591.asp) has been removed from MSNBC.
The debate about what we want to know as opposed to what news editors judge we should know has always been with us. But one thing is certain: If MSNBC is asking the opinion of its audience, then that opinion will, in some manner, mean something to the way MSNBC operates. And when people vote for the news, they get the news they deserve.
Suppression and censorship:
A few years ago, many people believed that satanic ritual abuse of children was widespread; somehow, we no longer think this is the case, although a few good reputations were destroyed before we were disabused of the notion.
In 1988, in what became known as the Broxtowe case, 10 adults were charged in Nottinghamshire, England, with sexually abusing 21 children. The Nottinghamshire County Council commissioned three British journalists to form a joint enquiry team to look into the matter. Their analysis, called the JET report, said there was no evidence at all of satanic abuse.
But the council refused to release the report, and the accusations continued. One of the JET authors, concerned that suppressing the report would encourage other innocent people to be unfairly charged, leaked it to other British journalists, who put it on the Internet on May 30.
On June 3, Nottingham County Council obtained a court injunction to remove it from the Net, but by this time the report had been "mirrored" (copied) on Web sites in Belgium, Germany, the United States, and Canada. In Penticton, B.C., 21-year-old student Jeremy Freeman posted a copy on June 5, and got an E-mail the next day from Nottinghamshire's county solicitor telling him he was in contempt of (a British) court. Mr. Freeman removed the report, but put in a link to another Web site that had the text. On June 7, Mr. Freeman got another letter from the solicitor, saying that a link was equivalent to publication and telling him to cease and desist.
Other mirror sites received similar notices. As usually happens on the Net, all sorts of Internauts have posted copies of the JET report to challenge Nottinghamshire's attempt to suppress it. Among them is K.K. Campbell, a Toronto journalist and editor of an on-line magazine called The Convergence (http://www.theconvergence.com).
The issue in question is copyright. Whether Nottinghamshire has the right to suppress the report is still unclear, given current laws. Even less clear is whether the county has the right to cite international copyright agreements to stop the report being posted in foreign countries. Toronto on-line copyright lawyer Lesley Ellen Harris says using copyright laws to silence Web publishers is a new technique, and it's impossible to say which way it will go. One thing is certain: It will be a messy case should it ever reach trial.
A fuller version of this story has been written by Electronic Frontier Canada's David Jones, and is posted at Mr. Campbell's Webzine site (http://www.theconvergence.com/columns/djones/).