Certifying online news sites deemed a no-go

Thursday, February 15, 2001

NEW YORK — “Credibility is not something that you stamp on your Web site or on your magazine or on your newspaper and wear like a badge of honor,” said Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the Online News Association, as a series of speakers Feb. 13 roundly rejected the idea of certifying online news sites.

The so-called “good housekeeping seal” that would mark an Internet publication as “100% pure” was the subject of a First Amendment Center forum to debate whether certification of news sites would provide a road map for weary surfers in search of news they could trust, or whether the practice would exclude alternative or unpopular views. Proposals for some kind of a system have come from Consumers Union and the Pew Charitable Trust, among others.

The program, “Certifying the News: Should There be ‘Official’ News Sites?,” presented in conjunction with the Online News Association, also featured Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, a global information services company, and Gordon Ross, president and CEO of Net Nanny Software International. Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president/technology and programs at The Freedom Forum, moderated.

The far-reaching conversation was mostly a cacophony of agreement: Certification is bad, the Internet as a marketplace of ideas is good, and if you could perhaps get a few labels for protecting children, well, that would also be good.

Ross, whose Net Nanny Software offers parents the technology to filter out “the seedier side” of the Internet that they deem offensive, made clear his intentions: not to close the Internet or silence anyone, but merely to give parents “control [of] what is going on with that terminal.”

No one has to use the database of blocked sites that his company provides, he added, but it’s there so
parents who fear offensive material can “block it with your own value sets, not mine.”

It is for just that reason that the panel disapproved of certification.

“There shouldn’t be an official certification of news sites. The reason has to do with power more than anything else. The moment you give someone power to declare something OK or not OK, they tend to start abusing it over time,” said Dyson. “There should be a web of trust, but it should be fluid. Let the market figure out that the Wall Street Journal is credible and maybe Matt Drudge is not.”

Jaroslovsky, who is also the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online, would be happy if the public could make that distinction.

“You could probably without much difficulty say that, ‘OK, CNN and The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC — all of their Web presences are clearly journalistic enterprises and thus should be worthy of being designated as such,’” he said, referring to the dot-news suffix that some are proposing.

But he added, the inevitable concern is that “someone has to make those decisions and that is where a lot of these ideas break down.”

“The instant that you create a body that says, ‘Well, the Wall Street Journal is entitled to call itself a news
organization, but Matt Drudge isn’t,’ then I think you are rapidly going down a very slippery slope,” he said.

In fact, Drudge has indeed had — and broken — legitimate news stories.

“If Matt Drudge hadn’t reported his report and posted it on the Web, we would never know about some of the things that happened over the last five or six years,” Ross acknowledged.

Dyson agreed.

“Sometimes cranks tell the truth,” she said. “I think some good journalism is performed by whistle blowers and nut cases and certainly not on journalism sites. One of my favorite publications is something in Russia called The Exile, which is mostly a scatological rag, but it has some of the best and most honest political reporting. It’s sort of the Hustler, if you like, of Russia.”

In her view, the “truth often needs unofficial support.”

“I think it’s important to allow stuff to be out there and create a web of people picking up good stuff and trying to bubble it to the surface. What you don’t want is officialdom stamping it out by saying , ‘Well, this isn’t proper journalism,’ as opposed to, ‘This offends me,’” she said.

Dyson, who has just finished a two-year term as founding chairman of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is the international agency charged with setting policy for the Internet’s core infrastructure, said there were legitimate reasons for concern about Internet content.

“I think there is a whole lot of stuff on the Internet that shouldn’t be there — there are lies, there is libel, there is misinformation, there are bomb-making instructions, there are trade secrets that people are exposing,” she said.

“What do we do about it?,” she continued. “The solution, let’s face it, is mostly suing after the fact of somebody being damaged, and that’s what the freedom of the press is about. It’s no prior restraint.”

To be sure, online journalists face their own version of the battles that print and broadcast media have endured.

The ONA recently joined a friend-of-the-court brief in a case that Jaroslovsky says “attempts to essentially establish a linking liability on the part of news sites and other sites that might link to a site that has illegal information.”

In the case in question, Universal City Studio v. Reimerdes, which involved information for cracking DVD copy protection, a federal district court found online news organizations liable for providing the site link. The case is going to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We found that to be a very difficult and very dangerous precedent,” Jaroslovsky said, “because of the notion that journalists could be held liable in some fashion for creating the most basic building block of the Web, a link. “

The ONA’s activist role in how online journalism develops — its mission statement says: “We think it is up to us to encourage the best journalism possible in this new medium” — led Powell to ask
Jaroslovsky if the organization “would ever become an adjudicator of disputes.”

“It could become that, but if it did, I would be out the door pretty darn quick!” Jaroslovsky replied.
“I guess I’m just not a big believer in news councils and in certification. At the end of the day, I think where I come down — and I think where the ONA would come down — would be to say that it is more important to trust the marketplace of ideas, as Esther says.”

“I can’t see that any council or any certification entity is going to be able to improve upon that fundamental system,” he added.

Tags: ,