April 19, 1999 -- Newsletter #24

By Joe Burns

April 19, 1999 -- Newsletter #24

Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors...

I wanted to take this newsletter and tell you a story about what happened to me last week. I was actually, for the first time, nervous about being on the Web. No, strike that. I guess I was a little nervous about being so accessible over the Net.

I remember when I got into writing Web pages: My first real task, past putting together my own home page (Goodies wasn't even an idea yet), was to create the home page for the Department of Communications at my university. I waltzed around with my 35mm camera and took pics of all the professors. I was going to scan the images and post them to the site. A couple basically told me there was no way that I was going to put a picture of them on the Web. I didn't understand their fears then, but now I have at least a sense of it.

As I say often enough, outside of keeping the HTML Goodies site, I'm a university professor. As such, one of my duties is to publish. You might have heard the jokes about professors being at a "publish or perish" school? Well, it isn't a joke. It's actually written right into our contracts. If you're at a publish-or-perish and you do not publish... you perish. Well, you don't really perish, you just don't get tenure and have to go somewhere else. It's not like a hit squad shows up and knocks you off due to lack of ink.

There are numerous venues for publishing. One of my favorites, and one I've been pretty successful with, is publishing opinion pieces, otherwise known as OpEds. They're usually on the last page of your local paper's section "A" next to the Letters to the Editor.

So one day a couple of weeks ago, my OpEd editor called me to say it was about time I started writing OpEds again. (I had been off the OpEd wagon for a while so I could put the JavaScript Goodies book together.) He always wants two or three at a pop, so I rolled a couple ideas past him regarding Kosovo. One he liked: I suggested that the major wars of the 20th century could be catalogued by the medium that reported it. World War I was covered via newsprint. World War II was covered via radio. Vietnam is often referred to as the "living-room" war because television brought the horrors right into our homes. The Gulf War was broadcast 24 hours a day.

Following that logic, I said that Kosovo was the first conflict to be covered by the Internet. I was going to write a piece on how the Internet would cover the war and what effects might occur. Make sense?

The opinion piece went on to state that the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, was a limitless palette, accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem. There are no editors on the Web, and a Web page's looks alone cannot denote if a site is valid news or not. Good Web pages are attainable to anyone who wants to take the time to read HTML Goodies (plug, plug)! Thus, the ability to create misinformation and spread it like wildfire is there for anyone who wishes to try.

In addition, the younger a person is, the more apt they are to read something on the Web and take it as truth, simply because it is on the Web. This isn't a new phenom. There was a long period of time in which the newspaper was seen as the voice of authority, same with radio and television. If it was on the tube, if Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. At least that was the impression.

Anyway, the whole point of the 1000-word piece was to say "Be careful about what you read on the Web. Check other sources and different mediums for verification before you take something as the truth." I think this is especially true when a conflict is involved and news is coming from halfway around the world and most of the reporters have been expelled from the country. Basic concept: Verify before you believe. I actually thought it was a little dull. It didn't seem like much of an opinion. Luckily Scripts Howard picked it up and it was in 50+ newspapers over a weekend Friday through Sunday.

So the e-mail started to come, as it usually does. The OpEd always lists my name as author and the university where I teach. People are pretty quick about finding the school on-line and searching for my e-mail address. One gentleman wrote to me that he disagreed and that I was wrong. I wrote back and thanked him for the response and that his points were valid. I thought that was the end of it.

Later that night, I received another letter that someone had taken the OpEd from a California paper and transcribed it to the discussion page of a Web site. The gentleman who posted the piece asked if I would come to the site and join the discussion. That didn't bug me too much, I said I would and went to see their posting.

Yeeeee! The site was blatantly anti-media. No, I'm not going to tell the name of the site because I don't want anyone going in and attempting to defend me... or anything else ;-). It has been basically dropped and I want to keep it that way.

The OpEd post took about three-fourths a printed page. The comments went on for 17. Pick a name. I was called it. I was a mouthpiece for the Clinton administration, an ivory tower intellectual who wouldn't know the real world because I am hiding behind my books, a Luddite (I actually laughed at that one), and basically a bad American.

The people on this Web site thought the press was controlled by the government to the point where the media was just a PR camp for the President and his party. They believed their Web site was the right-wing voice of truth on an otherwise liberal media. I was stating that people should check with the traditional media to check facts on the Internet. I was apparently the enemy.

Okay, fine. People have opinions and they have every right to state them. I wasn't all that nervous yet. Then toward the end of the posts, someone had made links to my picture and my e-mail address. Yikes! The post suggested the readers of this Web site write to Joe "The Great One" Burns. Comments were dripping with sarcasm and full of anger.

Then I saw a post where the gentleman who invited me to the discussion group wrote that I would be posting very soon. Guh! Now the posts were trash talking, waiting to tell me what a jerk I am. One person wrote that he awaited my arrival so he could use his "Cyber Squirrel Gun." I didn't post. It wouldn't have made a difference anyway. No matter what I would have said, it would have been torn apart. The people in the discussion groups smelled blood and were just waiting for me to show up to call me more names. I figured they had my e-mail address, they knew where to write me if they really wanted... and some have.

The funny thing was, they proved my point. This was a group of people who, from what I gathered, all posted to the Web site and looked to it for their "unfiltered" news. They continually claimed the Internet was the bastion of democracy and true freedom of the press. They openly shunned the traditional media, although they did use it as source material to write their own stories, or posted what they found in media with like agendas.

What I found most interesting was that the posts to the discussion group claimed the site as a place where truth and unfiltered accuracy could be found. Yet in their posts there were glaring errors. They got my title wrong: I am an Assistant Professor; some wrote that I was a teaching assistant. There's a big difference. An editor might have caught that.

Some of the posts gave examples of the traditional news media deceiving people. Dateline NBC's planting a bomb on a truck so it would explode was the one most sited. ABC News' bad reporting of Food Lion was also mentioned. Yet, there was only one post even mentioning any of the scares that float around the Internet, and that particular post just glossed over the subject by saying that yes, sometimes people "get" them, but they always get the story right in the end. Still, the posts did make some very good points. The one I liked best read that since there are no reporters to videotape the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Internet allows a method for those still in the country to get word out. I agree. But shouldn't we make a point of checking the source to make sure the post actually came from Kosovo, rather than simply posting it? What is to stop a smart programmer in Yugoslavia from routing mail through Kosovo, thus giving the appearance that the e-mail is legitimate, and saying things that are not true?

I stand by my opinion. Take the news and opinion you get from the Web with a grain of salt. I never said not to use the Web, just be careful about taking what you get at face value, especially if the story is a real blockbuster that you don't hear anywhere else. If the story does turn out to be true, then you can revel in the fact that you were one of the first to know. If it turns out to be false, you can pat yourself on the back because you were smart enough to take a watchful attitude.


And that's that. Thanks for reading, and don't think I don't like getting e-mail! Please feel free to write and tell me what you think. I am more than open to discussion, as long as both sides are open.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: Do you like PEZ? It was invented by Eduard Haas, an Austrian doctor's son. PEZ was first marketed as a mint to help stop smoking. It wasn't until the mint got to America that it was marketed as a kid's candy. And in case you're wondering -- the first PEZ dispenser was shaped like Santa Claus.

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