Trampling freedom in a cyberpanic

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

It often appears that the nation's newspapers are peering into cyberspace through the wrong end of a telescope. In such an inverted view of the online world, where vagrant bits and pieces and bright flashes are made more ominous by distance, a cyberpanic sets in. The Internet looms in the lens as more threat than promise.

How else do you explain coverage of the Internet that too often focuses on the superficial and sensational, or reflects an attitude of fear and foreboding, or, worse, practically pleads for laws to tame this fearsome frontier?

That's not to say the mainstream media never get it right about the Internet. There are, indeed, negative things about the Internet that must be reported, implications about its impact on our lives that must be explored, some regulation that must be discussed.

Too much of the Internet coverage, however, separates into two categories: the technology of the Internet and the pathology of the Internet. And while the technology beat displays a fascination with gee-whiz gadgetry over its negative and positive implications for freedom, it is the pathology beat where journalistic cyberpanic really kicks in. These are the stories that transform cyberspace into a diseased, disabling and dangerous universe.

In this sort of coverage, our respect and tolerance for the democratic din we've come to expect in traditional discourse get short shrift and our allegiance to free-speech principles is lost in a relentless swirl of headlines and articles about sex, terrorism, sex, racism, sex, faux journalism, sex, “Net addiction,” and, of course, all that sex.

The word “smut” becomes handy headlinese for words needing careful distinctions, such as obscenity, child pornography, pornography, and indecency. Legitimate speech about health, sexuality and other issues get lumped in with pornography. In the stampede to make sure children are protected, the notion of protected speech is abandoned and the idea that it has to be one or the other becomes an editorial mantra.

The irony is that when the press engages in such coverage, it not only neglects its duty to the public but to itself as well. Indeed, much of what is happening in the online world right now bears directly on press freedoms.

Just a few of the developments, events, and issues, where the press needs to tend to its own freedoms as well as those of the larger society in its coverage:

  • The Gore Commission's recommendations for new media that may spill over into traditional media.
  • Regulation of online gambling advertising and “spam” and its potential impact on newspaper and broadcast advertising.
  • Copyright treaties and the European Union data directive and how they may affect newsgathering and publishing in the United States.

More important, a barrage of local, state and federal laws proposed in the name of the children, decency, safety, and good order must be fully examined for service to those objectives; further, they must be challenged to stand up to the standards of a free society.

Some questions newspaper editors need to be asking themselves about other online issues:

Will libel law expand or contract in cyberspace?

Can the idea of filtering and rating objectionable material on the Internet, once accepted, be kept from spreading to other media?

Should reporters for online news operations have the same claim on press credentials as those for the mainstream press?

Is the cancel bot the online equivalent of the heckler's veto?

How do the emerging models of commercial and technological speech suppression combine with ever-more-sophisticated government models to affect not just the press but First Amendment freedoms throughout society?

Just as a caution, editors should remember that their predecessors weren't all that consistent or First Amendment-friendly when confronted with such questions. In fact, there is a rather distressing pattern down through the years.

For the most part, newspapers editors came late — or never arrived at all — to the fight for First Amendment parity for radio, for comic books, for movies, and for television. Just as they didn't see a connection with their own freedoms when Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt was facing jail time, they don't see much of a threat to their own freedoms as Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge fights a libel lawsuit and an anti-abortion Web site is judged guilty of a threat for engaging in aggressive political speech.

The idea that speech can't be regulated in one medium or technology without damaging speech in another too often seems difficult to grasp for the journalistic profession.

There was a time when there was much talk in journalistic circles of “convergence,” as print, broadcast, cable and other media became one. But that was a couple of press conventions ago. Now you don't hear much talk about “convergence” because, in the language of journalists, “We've done that story, it's yesterday's news.” That's the line, even as the news media march inevitably toward convergence.

And as press techniques and values converge on the lowest common denominator, it is inevitable that press freedoms will sink to that level, too. The day will come when the same rights accorded Internet speech are the ones accorded the traditional press.

This is an important time in the life of the First Amendment, equivalent to the post-Civil War period when so much of speech and press freedom was embraced in the laws, the courts and the public mind. Congress is turning out Internet-regulation laws faster than proposals to amend the First Amendment. What the courts decide about the constitutionality of those laws, how the public perceives the rationale for those laws, and whether lawmakers continue to turn them out depends mightily on how the press covers it all.

And the nature of that coverage depends in turn on whether the nation's newsrooms get past the current judgment that a wreck on the highway is infinitely more newsworthy than a constitutional collision in cyberspace. Careful and constructive coverage requires attention to the First Amendment implications of developments in cyberspace and proposals for regulating this online world.

Editors and reporters must keep in mind that fear feeds panic. Ignorance feeds panic. Neglect feeds panic. And while panic grows fat, freedom goes wanting.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at