Battle in the Clouds
The undercard in the Kerry vs Swiftvets bout is Mainstream Media vs Kid Internet, two distinctly different fights, but both over information. The first is really the struggle over the way Vietnam will be remembered by posterity; whether its amanuensis will be John Kerry for the antiwar movement or those who felt betrayed by them. The victor in that struggle will get to inscribe the authoritative account of that mythical conflict in Southeast Asia: not in its events, but in its meaning. The fight will be as bitter as men for whom only memory remains can be bitter. But the undercard holds a fascination of its own. The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy. Joe Strupp at Editor and Publisher writes:
As the John Kerry swift boat controversy navigates itself from the shoreline of the 2004 presidential campaign into the mainstream, newspapers face a dilemma of how to report on the veterans group attacking the Democratic nominee's record without giving them undue credibility or blowing the issue out of proportion.
Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor for The New York Times, points to the changing media landscape and its impact on what newspapers choose to cover. "I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it," she said. ... James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, agreed. But he said the critical approach may have been a bit late, considering that the Swift Boat Veterans ads came out two weeks ago. "I don't think there has been enough scrutiny until now," he said. "Prior to this, we weren't giving it enough attention." ...
"There are too many places for people to get information," O'Shea said. "I don't think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore -- to say this is wrong and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why."
The article is a candid and unconscious description of the actual nature of news. It is not just raw information or pixels pushed onto a screen, but a system of semantic entities: an series of information objects, containing properties and methods containing embedded logic, set loose on society. The power of the Mainstream Media lay in the fact that they controlled the generation of news objects; how they arose, what they did, how they ran their course. They were the news object foundry; able to make them "type safe"; define what they could do, and what they could not. And that power was enormous. Glenn Reynolds intuitively understood this when he wrote:
Elections come and go, politicians come and go, and pretty much all of them turn out to be disappointments one way or another. But the "Fourth Estate" is a big part of the unelected Permanent Government that in many ways does more to run the country than the politicians.
So when the Swiftvets story shouldered its way into the public consciousness despite the best efforts of the "gatekeepers" to consign it to oblivion, it posed an existential challenge to the news foundries. For where one could come, more would follow. The Mainstream Media responded to accusations by Swiftvets that Kerry had misrepresented his combat record in Vietnam by creating their own alternative news object, whose methods were restricted to OutrageAgainstBush( ) and SympathyForKerry( ), with read only properties Responsible and Respectable. They could no longer block the data, but they could still transform it.
Yet for good or ill, the genie is out of the bottle. Before the Gutenberg printing press men knew the contents of the Bible solely through the prism of the professional clergy, who could alone afford the expensively hand copied books and who exclusively interpreted it. But when technology made books widely available, men could read the sacred texts for themselves and form their own opinions. And the world was never the same again.