Mainstream Media Gatekeepers Quack at the Internet

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
— Juvenal

Who will keep the keepers? Who will guard the guards?

The question is as pertinent today as it was when the dissident Roman poet posed it nearly 2000 years ago.

But for our mainstream media maggots and magnates — why bother to ask?

Besotted with their privileges, their chummy access to the “news and opinion makers,” “embedded” and unembarrassed, our lapdog “journalists” and sycophants dare not question the power elite that keeps them in caviar. Better, like William Saffire, Judith Miller, William Kristol to behave asconsiglieri for the rich and powerful; cheer the masses onward to war; deflect criticism from those who steal elections, ransack the treasury, befoul the honor of the Ship of State.

Strong words? Only antidotal to one James Harkin, writing in that bastion of Anglo-American proprietary rights, The Financial Times of May 4, 2007. Harkin, or some provocateur headline-writer, has titled his hit-piece: “Rubbish piles up in the dead end of Cyburbia.” The FT’s guest columnist is miffed about Web 2.0–“the second coming of the worldwide web … taking its inspiration from a clutch of so-called ‘social networking sites.’” By which he means, “a matrix of websites, all peopled from the ground up, such as the self-broadcaster YouTube, the vast calling-card emporium MySpace and the virtual universe SecondLife.”

So, what’s the prob?

Mr. Harkin appears to have been nursed on too many re-runs of Reefer Madness. Surely our Youth are headed for the Promontory of Destruction. But, like all well-meaning fanatics, he wants to save the rest of us, too. He has found his hero and he adulates: “The internet entrepreneur and Silicon Valley veteran Andrew Keen has won plaudits and fame for this forthcoming book, The Cult of the Amateur, in which he argues Web 2.0 has become a virtual dumping ground for the inane ravings of self-made nothings and of talentless empty vessels.”


Not to be out-keened by Mr. Keen, Mr Harkin, admonishes the misbegotten: “When we stare out of the window on to the web, what we see … is a sordid cauldron of voyeurism and exhibitionism — instead of Web 2.0, we might just as easily call it Cyburbia. Our deference to the user-generated architecture of the place has made it into a headless monster.”

I might have chosen “hydra-headed monster,” but “headless” will do. It resonates with Mr. Harkin’s theme: “It is better to put your faith in brands that can act as trusted gatekeepers than to invest in the fickle whims of the online crowd.”

Oh, slovenly, uppity peasants–put your faith in idols, prophets, and your trusted “gatekeepers” at the Financial Times and New York Times and Emperor Rupert Murdoch!

Trust, and be easy. Know this about web 2.0: “It’s rumor mill can deflate reputations without reason, bully journalists and politicians and poison the terms of public debate.”

Why didn’t anyone warn me before?

And yet, something gnaws. Before I was enlightened by Mr. Harkin, I believed that the Web — one and two, mind you — had, to a large extent, democratized the flow of information, opened the channels of debate, established new fora for policy analysis, implementation and review.

Oddly, Mr. Harkin wonders what could have possessed Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace for $580 million when his money “could have been spent refurbishing his newspapers for the digital age.” According to Mr. Harkin, Rupert M. showed better sense when he tendered his $5 billion bid for the Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal.

And then, his coup de gras: Mr. Harkin concludes that no one should “think that what is being sold”–on Web 2.0–”is anything other than crap.”

Yes, I quote exactly.

But, was it not the old media like Mr. Murdoch’s worldwide Fox News, his New York Post and U.K. Sun that led the charge to war on Iraq? Wasn’t it Murdoch’s raggy Post that transposed a chicken head onto a picture of the French prime minister? Didn’t a surprising number of the venerable “trusted-brand gatekeepers” impiously “deflate reputations without reason, bully journalists and politicians and poison the terms of public debate”? Mr. Harkin’s broad-brush condemnation of the Web, his lack of discrimination as he surveys sites laudable and deplorable, is unworthy of a writer who titles his next book, “Big Ideas.”

I’ll be the first to admit that the Internet has a lot of scary stuff on it. It’s a Garden of Earthly Delights that can quickly run foul with weeds. It needs tending; it requires caution and perspective to see its hidden arroyos. Yes, it even needs adult supervision to protect children.

But, Quis custodiet?

Mr. Harkin reminds us of those moral custodians who used to examine pornography to determine its harm to the commonweal. Did they enjoy their investigations? How did they judge? Were they obsessed with wallowing in the “crap”?

The problem is that these MSM afficianados are quacking at the wrong “rubbish.” The crisis is that we have evolved into a society in which we are flooded with information — accurate or misleading — and we barely know how to make distinctions. (One thinks of the penny newspapers proliferating like weeds in 19th Century America — dependent on the journalistic fictions of Hearn, Twain, et. al. One thinks of William Randolph Hearst to his hirelings: You supply the photographs; I’ll supply the war!) Mr. Harkin and his ilk would drive us quacking right back to the knife-sharpening farmer who has fattened us.

I spend about 3 hours a day on the Internet. I’ve learned which sites are worth my time and which are not. I check out new sites that are recommended by those whose judgment I value. There are citizen-journalists, commentators, writers, cartoonists, poets whose work appears almost exclusively on the Web; and they have enriched my life. New talent is constantly emerging; more seasoned talents ever refining their skills. Isn’t it time to start teaching Web-awareness in our schools, in our universities? Isn’t it time to teach discernment so that our citizens will know how to judge the judges and guard the guards?

I close with a few choice words of another poet, Alexander Pope. For Messrs. Harkin and Keen:

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried;
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

Poet-playwright-journalist-fictionist-editor-professor, Dr. Gary Corseri has published work in Dissident Voice, The New York Times, Village Voice, CommonDreams and hundreds of other publications and websites worldwide. His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library. Gary can be reached at Read other articles by Gary.