Web Informant #124, 17 September 1998:
The Starr Report was anything but a stellar day for the Internet


Many of the reports in the press have given kudos and appreciation to the Internet for distributing the Starr report on the Lewinsky/Whitewater investigation of our president. However, I and others are not so sure this was a Good Thing, as correspondent Mike Canalli describes below. Take it away, Mike.

Do you remember exactly where you were on September 11, 1998? You may well be asked to recall your whereabouts for your grandchildren, just as many of us can identify the exact circumstances when we first heard of the Challenger disaster, or when we lost MLK, or RFK, or JFK. It was a day that I'll remember for a long time: the first use of the Internet for a high-tech lynching of a President.

At first examination, distributing the Starr report was a stellar day for the Internet. Within minutes, millions were downloading and searching for keywords such as cigars, ties, and oral escapades. Thanks to the report, the public now perceives a peer relationship between the Internet and TV. Yet, beyond identifying the points of restriction in the net, the Starr report has also shown an ability to use the medium to massage the truth. As Marshall McLuhan, a visionary educator of mass media, once said about television: "In our time, we have devised ways of making the most trivial event affect everybody. One of the consequences of electronic environments is the total involvement of people in people." - This is now true for the Internet.

As a reminder let's remember that the report contains allegations. Not all of it may be true.

When the Internet is used as a reference from TV news, it can take on the authority and credibility of the source. This becomes insidious, as allegation can be associated with fact under the guise of elegant - and electronic -- presentation. My concern is for the potential damage to our democracy; and that advanced technology was the tool. Consider what would it mean if political forces in the future could use such smear campaigns to defeat a treaty, or a budget, or alter an election so effectively and immediately!

This recalls Paddy Chayefsky's intense and brilliant movie "Network". The character playing the network's CEO, "Mr. Jensen", is talking to an unfortunate newscaster, who has been called in on the carpet for mistakenly issuing the correct truth on the wrong topic.

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature! You will atone! There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today."

So now life imitates the movies. How sad.

The President is certainly not a man without enemies; and therein lies a motive. We should be concerned as citizens when our perceptions are shaped to attend to someone else's agenda.

Also consider what Janet Reno said after listing the charges against Microsoft: "...And by golly, it just isn't right". The line may not actually be hers; it originated much earlier from Wilford Brimley's character in "Absence of Malice", a movie that examines the misuse of print media for deliberate libel and character assassination by a prosecutor. This is an interesting connection, because the prosecutor is one of the few individuals in our society who can make such public charges. He is allowed all the malice he can muster.

The President, as a public figure and has no real defense. Indeed, the Starr report was so quickly on the net before anyone in the White House had even had a chance to read it. One colleague, at a site that posted a copy of the report, bragged how quickly they had been able to do so! That is equally sad.

The many parallels between Joe McCarthy and Ken Starr can be left to the historians to enumerate, but each was a media innovator of a kind. They each discovered the ability to direct an embryonic medium to tear down, rather than build up, teach or create. That is the sad waste of a great invention. Who will now emerge, in our times, with the conviction and courage of Edward R. Morrow to defend the Internet against stellar decline?

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