Harlan Ellison versus the Crazy Yenta Gossip Line

Harlan Ellison versus the Crazy Yenta Gossip Line

I couldn't believe it. Harlan Ellison, author of millions of words criticizing every aspect of popular media in The Glass Teat and other columns, books, editorials, and interviews... turns his guns on the Internet and completely misses his target.

"With the Internet, the greatest disseminator of bad data and bad information the universe has ever known, it's become impossible to trust any news from any source at all, because it's filtered through this crazy yenta gossip line. It's impossible to know anything." -- Harlan Ellison, in an interview with The Onion, September 17, 1998.

When has it ever been possible to trust any news from any source at all? Journalists have traditionally been very good at adding a veneer of credibility to their reports and editorials, but very few of them seem to know anything about the stories they're reporting on. At least on the Internet the crazy yentas filtering the news have a reasonably good grasp of the subject they're applying their hidden and not-so-hidden agendas to.

I used to be a big fan of newspaper reporters. Jimmy Olsen was my hero. In contrast to television crews, newspaper and magazine journalists seemed to have the opportunity to spend the time necessary to get the facts straight, they didn't have to take a complex subject and trim it down to a thirty second sound bite.

But you know, as time went on and I got closer to the heart of some of these stories, I found that the more I knew about the facts the less accurate the stories seemed. That made me wonder, how close to reality were the rest of the stories, the ones I didn't know anything about?

Now I've been a pretty prolific poster on Usenet and then the Internet over the past 20 years, and somewhere along there my name started coming up when these folks got together to dig up sources for their articles and reports. Now and then, some reporter or journalist would call up or (more and more frequently) write me email, asking for information about this or that story they were following that touched on the Internet.

And what happens? Well, a frightening amount of the time the resulting story, if it quotes me, has gotten everything I said completely backwards. Maybe that's my fault. Maybe I didn't explain things very well. That doesn't matter, though... the point is, the filter has messed up. The reporter didn't have the faintest clue what was going on... but damn it they sure acted like they had it all together. That it was all under control.

But it never has been. It's always been a game of telephone, with people repeating things, losing track of the facts, even with the best of intentions (and do you want to tell me that all these reporters always had the best intentions?) all these layers of filters (reporters, editors, even copysetters and proofreaders, and the PR people who dole information out to the reporters in the first place)... it's amazing that the end result resembled the original events. Oh, there's checks and balances, but they operate out of our sight, and under the control of people whose motives we have no idea about.

The critical skill all these layers of people had, that made them successful in the field of journalism, was the ability to sound authoritative. To convince people... me, the people who read the story, the editors who OKed it... that they knew what they were talking about. Unless they came up with some truly horrendous screwup, like the Marty Rimm story, there's no end-to-end feedback to keep the story on track. Because all those layers of filters were invisible. All people ever saw, at the end of the line, was the cleaned up results of the digestive process.

In fact the idea of having a source eyeball the story before it went to press was anathema. Critical feedback was the last thing they wanted... this was supposed to ensure journalistic independence and integrity, but the effect was to cut the governer loose and let them print anything that'd improve readership. The only people they were accountable to were the editors and advertisers.

On the crazy yenta gossip line, though, you get to watch all that going on... and it looks horrible. But don't let anyone convince you that the same thing doesn't happen behind closed doors at The Daily Planet. And where you have visibility, you have feedback.

Usenet does this the best... you can't say anything on Usenet without someone coming in and correcting you. Maybe they're wrong, maybe they're right, maybe there's just a difference of opinion... but there's feedback. People can see whether you've got a clue or not. People get to make their decisions on the basis of more than one voice, and one viewpoint. Every story becomes a point-counterpoint, and if the thread lasts forever at least it doesn't get cut off when the side the editor likes is ahead. In print that only happens on burning issues, so things like Clinton's sex life get endlessly debated and some ISP's servers being confiscated because someone they had no relationship to posted kiddie porn from somewhere else on the net... that vanishes off the map.

Sites like the Onion, though, or this page, have turned off that feedback. There's no way for someone to effectively get their response into the faces of the people who read the original message. I can't cut out the bit about the crazy yenta gossip line and hyperlink it here. Ellison can't explain that I quoted him out of context [1] and get his response here unless I let him.

So all the good stuff about the crazy yenta gossip line is getting diluted as we build the whole structure of reporters, interviews, big names, and helpless pamphleteers all over again on thousands of web sites all over the world. [2]

And that's the real issue. Not that Ellison's horrified at the Internet, but that the Internet is losing that feedback that made it such an exceptional alternative to traditional media, where nobody could get away with bullshit without getting called out by someone with every damn right to do so, because they know something the reporter missed... or something the reporter was outright hiding.

Peter da Silva, November 1998.

[1] hell yes, I quoted him out of context... there's a lot of stuff in that interview that I agree with, the quote the Onion hilighted was just such a lovely hook.
[2] See Microsoft versus the Crazy Yenta Gossip Line at http://www.taronga.com/~peter/microsoft.html.