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THE FAILED PROMISE OF NEW JOURNALISM Greg Hughes takes a harsh, unflinching look at why political journalism on the web is falling short of its potential.

| Dec.13.2002 |

The world of modern journalism has become a much busier (and more complicated) place in the last ten years.

For the average Westerner, the early 21st century is already turning out to be an interesting, albeit dangerous, era of political and economic change. And in this feeding frenzy of stories, some journalists and activists have been turning to the web to write, record and publish their views.

In effect, these reporters are trying to create a new form of historical record that is D.I.Y., innovative and above all else, independently-run.

But in spite of independent news groups like indymedia.org, mediachannel.org, mediaaccess.org and fair.org, there hasn’t exactly been a renaissance in the number of media outlets that actually get heard. Quite the opposite.

By the time you read this, a United Nations-endorsed, American-led coalition of nations bent on eliminating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his military apparatus will be making plans for a second visit to the Persian Gulf in a decade.

Yet besides the prospect of yet another war in this extremely unsettling political environment is the fact that, at least in the United States, popular support for such an attack on Iraq has been given the virtually unanimous support of the mainstream media; Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, CNN’s Pat “Soviet Canuckistan” Buchanan and a host of other television and radio hosts and networks gave their tacit approval to George W. Bush — permission to “go forth young man” and end what daddy couldn’t ten years earlier.

The irony of Americans’ continued deference to their media and political elites came when President Bush addressed the U.N. last month, stating that “Iraq’s state-controlled media has reported numerous meetings between Saddam Hussein and his nuclear scientists, leaving little doubt about his continued appetite for these weapons.”

And it’s not as though Canada hasn’t been willing to follow suit. Foreign Affairs minister Bill Graham was quoted saying, “I think what will happen is Iraq will conform. I think its neighbours are now putting pressure on it to say, ‘Look, there is no alternative.’ And it’s very much thanks to the role of the United States that we’ve got the pressure there to make sure that this happens.”

In a perfect world, potential conflicts like Gulf War II wouldn’t even be happening. But even in a less-than-perfect situation, opposition to such an obvious, cloying attempt at masking U.S. oil interests in the Middle East should have better popular support — especially amongst the netizen journalists.

It seems so self-evident: The internet generation has been raised on, if you’re politically-minded, a steady diet of Noam Chomsky conspiracy theories, a five-party Canadian Parliament and youthful, invigorating political zines like punditmag.com. A medium like the net, rightly or wrongly, lets all voices (some abhorrent, some amusing) be heard.

Or so we figured.

Believing the internet to be a vehicle for real political change and dissenting voices is a view we might have subscribed to in, say, 1995. Nowadays, even the most compelling web site, the most well-organized chatroom or the best email listserv can’t hide the fact that the most effective means for political dialogue is a face-to-face dynamic.

The internet was supposed to help facilitate new kinds of communication and new kinds of thinking that went beyond the video screen or audio connection. What was hoped to link people, places and events beyond traditional media has turned into, well, every other mass medium. The lines have been drawn between corporate media juggernauts and bathtub gin operations — there is no middle ground anymore.

So why hasn’t the web given us a news source that promises ideas in a forum of immediacy and relevancy beyond corporate media?

Legitimate news groups like the CBC, CTV and CityTV are so strong in propagating their presence online because they are trusted and have the institutional memory to back up claims of their legitimacy. For one, the web remains in its infancy in terms of reporting legitimate news. While more opinions and views are present online, the culture of Matt Drudge — news based on rumours, not facts — remains dominant. While the public’s hunger for information has increased since the web’s breakthrough into popular consciousness, our demand for trustworthy sources has as well.

Yet web-based media has made the mistake of trying not only to emulate television, radio and print media all at once, but effectively reinventing the wheel several times over: Even sites like Plastic or Slashdot, some of the most “credible web media,” remain locked into niche reporting that relies mostly on second-hand information. And yes, Slashdot users are basically a large community of reporters, as are many web media sites. Even Salon, a zine conceived during the web’s initial foray into public life in 1995, has become a fluffier, less relevant source.

Does this mean that the net has matured to the point that, while any John or Jane Q. Public can set up a website on al Qaeda and voice their views, they won’t even be heard in the sea of CNNs and News Corps? Can independent voices and FTAA be taken seriously online if they don’t have the historical legacy to support themselves?

Well, not exactly.

Truly successful web-based journalism depends on going back to the basics of reportage; writing narratives and historical legacies that reflect the web’s non-linear perspectives. What this really means is that the adage “everything old is new again” is becoming more important in a medium that thrives on unique approaches to storytelling.

In many ways, some of the more successful forms of authorship online have been basically old forms of storytelling; weblogs are the electronic equivalent of written correspondence, serialized news stories are reported in a format similar to old newspaper serials, and websites such as bitbooks.com are writing and adapting works of fiction exclusively to reflect electronic realities.

While streamed video, Flash animation and audio feeds are only just beginning to make their mark on the web, this means the web must take a journalistic approach that harkens back to an era that did not have video or audio capabilities.

In effect, this means going back to the days of George Orwell, Charles Krauthammer and Hunter S. Thompson, in which stories were written with an almost literary feel that drew the reader in.

While political chatrooms, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves or emaillist servs can talk on end about the virtues of Maoist China, the New Democrats’ hopes for the future or even Friedrich Hayek’s libertarianism, the net will truly realize its potential for high-quality journalism when it has the power of original narratives behind it.

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