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The Internet and the Death of the News Monopoly

by J. Orlin Grabbe

When the goldsmith Johnann Gutenberg and his financial partner Johann Fust established their printing shop at Mainz around 1448 A.D., one of their first projects was the publication of St. Jerome's translation of the Vulgate Bible. Then a scientific work, Pliny's Natural History, was printed in Venice in 1469, and by 1500 there were 40,000 book editions on many subjects, each running to 200 or 300 copies, for a total of about ten million books in Europe.

The printing revolution had massive social impact. Firstly, the Church had always taken the view that it was the sole interpreter of holy scripture. Hence it did not hold popular translations of the Bible in high regard. After all, if everyone could read scripture, they would begin forming their own biblical interpretations, and asking their own questions about the contrast between Church practice and Western Christianity's supposed intellectual foundations. The Church's interpretive filter, or editorial process, would be undermined. And the Church's fears were well-founded. One example is Erasmus of Rotterdam's Praise of Folly which appeared in 1511. He satirized the Church, among other institutions, and then in 1516 published a translation of the Greek text of the New Testament. The public became aware of a number of short-comings in basic ecclesiastical writings, because they had direct access to the materials on which those writings were based.

Moreover, the Gutenberg revolution brought about a democratization in book ownership. Books were no longer the sole province of the rich. Reading was no longer a skill whose value was limited to those with access to the manuscript library of the Church or that of the local Prince. There was no guarantee, of course, that popular tastes would run in academically or ecclesiastically approved channels--to texts like Pliny's Natural History or Jerome's Bible. The early 1500s saw a slew of romances of chivalry, such as Amadis de Gaul by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo. But neither were these works without consequence: Visions of adventure drove the conquistadors on their knight's errands to look for El Dorado and the Amazons. "California" is the name of an island in Sergas de Esplandian, a book sequel to Amadis de Gaul. The New World is littered with names from the literature of chivalry.

A democratic revolution similar to Gutenberg's is taking place today in the transmission and presentation of news. The Internet, in general, and the published pages of the World-Wide Web, in particular, undermine the authority of the priestly caste of editors presiding over the New York Times. The Internet's information transmission mechanisms bypass and make a mockery of the highly selective news filters imposed at CNN. Original news, research, and opinion--both the good and the bad--often goes from producer to consumer unadulterated. On the Internet one can construct one's own daily newspaper by linking to a selection of web pages, subscribing to chosen mailing lists, and accessing preferred newsgroups. One can also compete with the established media on specialized topics by publishing ones own web page.

Traditional media senses the competition, and would like to eliminate it if it could. But such is no longer possible. The Church had been able to kill the heretics called Albigensians, and to put a temporary stop to that nonsense. But because of the revolution in publishing, it was never able to stamp out the heresy of Lutheranism--of people who read the source materials, made their own interpretation, and agreed with Luther. (Never mind if Luther was right or wrong.) Similarly, the New York Times would like to kill all the heretics it calls "conspiracy theorists," but this is not possible. So it is relegated to preaching to the choir, and intoning sadly to any portion of its audience actually paying attention-- shaking its head at the devil worshipers who live somewhere south of Fourteenth Street or west of Riverside Drive. But this cannot change the fact that it is no longer required that one kiss the ring of Abe Rosenthal or his successors in order to be heard.

Of course, with democratization and freedom comes responsibility and uncertainty. The road to heaven is no longer a confident matter of following someone else's instruction. Truth relies upon the reader's discrimination. The burden is shifted from the editor- priest-intermediator and transferred to the news consumer-layperson. There was no guarantee that someone who was not a Greek scholar might not read in the New Testament about the miracle at Cana, and interpret the Greek word oinos as "grape juice". That is, they might say, Jesus didn't turn water into wine; he turned water into grape juice. There is no necessary guarantee of truth under democracy, any more than there is hope of truth under tyranny.

So on the Internet you may have non-pilots and non-engineers discussing the downing of TWA 800. You have auto mechanics asking questions about the Federal Reserve, and housewives concerned with cryptology policy and other privacy issues. There are non-journalism majors writing their own newsletters, and non-forensic experts meticulously combing the evidence relating to the death of Vince Foster. So what? While there is no guarantee the truth will necessarily emerge in this process, there is a greater probability that some of the truth will emerge some of the time than when the editors of the New York Times, sure of their pipeline to heaven, present us with the sanctified Fiske report, and declare it a revelation of God, or good government, or whatever.

Walter Lippmann said that the only way an editor could deal with the day's deluge of information was to hold pre-existing mental categories called "stereotypes," and to file away each event accordingly. Much of the traditional media has divided the ebb and flow of daily events into some equivalent of the ancient Greek separation of the material world into the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. But the Internet has potentially fragmented Lippmann's limited stereotypes into 20 million diverse web pages.

The World-Wide Web has not yet evolved into a Periodic Table of Elements, where news is concerned. But it has that potential. And that's why it's important.

November 29, 1996
Web Page: http://www.aci.net/kalliste/