A reader at Microsoft called last week to check me on that Greg Maffei statement I told you about, the one where he called most of Microsoft's temp workforce incapable of getting real jobs at the Redmond Menace. (He has since taken that back after various folks at Microsoft gave him a well-deserved whomp upside the head, only problem being that the folks who ought to be whomped are the ones who encourage that kind of thinking in the first place. But I digress.)
Gracious Reader and I had a nice talk, and he allowed that he was basically just checking to make sure that it wasn't just me, as G.R. put it, "throwing bombs." I didn't take it personally. A good media-BS meter is an essential 21st-century skill, and a good reporter will stand by—if not in—everything she writes. Besides, I'm part of a profession that's viewed as being approximately as ethical as used-car sales. (And here come the letters from the used-car salesmen, complaining that I just compared them to journalists.) Who am I to kick if someone looks askance?
In fact, I'm glad Gracious Reader let me acquit myself. Journalism has spent a relatively small but highly visible amount of time in the past decade or so making an ass of itself, and Operating Rule #1 of this 21st-century BS meter is consider the source. Promise yourself that you, the 21st-century Net-savvy news consumer, will take time to find out who brings you your news—what the reporter has written before, what sensibility the publication brings to its coverage, and how both reporter and publication have covered similar issues in the past. The Net makes that possible: Archives are searchable, email is easy, and access barriers are low.
Second (that is, Rule #2), view even old-school media powerhouses as fallible. You should have been looking at them with a quizzical eye all along (since they're staffed by mortals), but the Net has led even some of the most respected news graybeards into highly visible error. Remember when Pierre Salinger claimed that he had evidence that TWA Flight 800 had been hit by missile fire? Ouch! How about The New York Times and its continuing negative press on Amazon.com—press that neglects to mention the Times' highly lucrative business relationship with Amazon arch-rival Barnes & Noble? Doh! (Yes, I too am a source of negative press on Amazon, but they really are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop from the Times.) And have you been online long enough to remember when CNN scrambled to post its O.J. Simpson verdict page and posted the wrong (i.e., he's guilty) one? Oopsie!
I'm not claiming that any particular online publications is doing a better job, though outfits such as Salon are certainly holding their own. This is just a reminder that speed kills, and Net news these days is all about speed. Net profits and partnerships are proving even more deadly to credibility. Reader beware!
Rule #3 is a little tougher. I challenge you, my brilliant readers, to find the truth in even the most screwed-up coverage. Most journalists do the best job they can in the time and space allotted; when we stumble we aren't doing it to trip you up. Conversely, even the most biased or agenda-adherent coverage can contain a grain of truth. If you see something that looks totally wrong-headed to you, try pursuing the fact through other publications with other sensibilities—or, better yet, use the Net to track down the writer's source material. What you discover may surprise you. After all, as the old saying goes, even a stopped Matt Drudge is right twice a day.
The Net was supposed to transform journalism—make everybody a reporter, make the facts available, set the truth free. Foolish First Amendment absolutist that I am, I still believe that.