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Where Internet promises remain unfulfilled

CNET News.com's Jennifer Balderama writes that while the Internet hasn't necessarily done anything to hurt journalistic integrity or balance, it hasn't magically improved it.

When I was editor in chief of my college newspaper, I wrote this trifle of a column that, fortunately, only five people read. In one edition, in my optimistic naivete, I went so far as to say the Internet might someday be "the savior of journalistic integrity in the United States."

I had bought into the idealism: Unlimited access to a revolutionary means of communication! The free flow of ideas--globally! A better-informed public!

Silly me.

The bugger is, the most visible places to find news online are Web sites that bear the names of those same networks and newspapers that tend to suppress dissenting opinion. Thus, though the Internet hasn't necessarily done anything to hurt journalistic integrity or balance, it hasn't magically improved it, either.

Voices of dissent have been particularly hard to find since Sept. 11. In this post-disaster, bomb-dropping, flag-waving age, those who dare to "think different" and--gasp!--request debate or scrutiny of U.S. foreign policy have been fired, threatened and booed off the stage.

And good luck finding people saying au contraire on network news or in your daily newspaper's editorial page.

Take a recent survey by media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. According to FAIR, The New York Times and The Washington Post in the three weeks after Sept. 11 published 44 op-ed columns stressing a military response and only two columns advocating more peaceful solutions. If that's balance, then I'm the Dalai Lama.

The problem with this is that the big papers are where most readers turn for their "global" news. And readers are likely to visit those same outlets when searching for news on the Net.

People trust what they know. Big surprise. If that weren't the case, Starbucks wouldn't be on every corner in San Francisco, and U.S. tourists would never order a Big Mac in Argentina.

People say they want integrity when it comes to journalism, and of course integrity must come with a familiar label. So just like they pop into McDonald's because they know they'll get that perfect golden fry, readers turn to their alphabet-soup menu of media choices--ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN--trusting that the names they know will deliver the whole story.

So what happens when the big guys drop the ball?

After White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer asked the networks not to broadcast unauthorized video of Osama bin Laden--allegedly in the interest of public safety--the networks folded faster than you can say "censorship." Did a chorus of concern about repressed information bombard the networks? Nope.

The public is a fickle beast, so "we the people" didn't necessarily mind when the networks caved. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, which monitors public perception of the press, 70 percent of Americans are OK with media self-censorship if it's done in the interest of protecting the troops. Never mind that journalistic integrity is supposed to depend not only on getting the facts straight, but on reporting all sides of the story.

The ideal Internet
This is where the Internet of our ideals should swoop in and save the day. People looking for information the U.S. party line didn't want you to know once figured the Net would allow them to have it at their fingertips. And yes, such information is documented on more left-wing Web sites, such as those of The Nation and Mother Jones, or at online magazines such as Salon.com or Slate.

But those sites aren't as easy to unearth as ABC.

A search on Google for "news" brings up names in the top 10 including ABCNews.com, CNN.com and the Fox News Channel. The Yahoo News page hosts direct links to Reuters, The Associated Press and ABCNews.com. Missing are the Salons and MoJos of the world. The immediate variety of ideas we were promised in the Net's early days has been overwhelmed by phenomena such as Web portals' catalog-style categorizations and cross-marketing deals.

There are, of course, the major news Web sites' message boards, traditionally rife with criticism no matter your topic of choice. But are you really going to heed the dissenting view of a reader with the screen name "Hot4Teacher?"

Beyond that, there are the Web logs of would-be rabble-rousers. And there are Web networks such as Globalvision New Media and MediaChannel, which collect news from journalists outside the United States. But again, few Americans know to seek out these other points of view--or that they even exist.

Now, of course I don't want national security compromised. But there's this other dilemma: Burying the news is as damaging as misreporting it. It makes for an uninformed public--and that same public answers polls or casts votes based on an incomplete picture of the world and how it works. This is exactly what we don't want when legislators are trying hastily to pass "homeland defense" laws that in a time of chaos may seem prudent but in the end may come back to bite us in the behind in terms of our civil liberties.

Despite the convenience the Internet has brought us, if people want the whole story, they're still going to have to dig. What's sad is that a public that's used to being spoon-fed its information is hardly likely to get out its virtual shovel.