Breaking news and the web
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 5, 2001
There can, of course, be no good to be found in the evil lunacy of fanatics flying jetliners into occupied office buildings.
But that is not the same as saying that there aren't lessons to be learned.
When the attacks in New York and Washington began, the nation's newspapers were already delivered or on their way to subscribers' homes. Those whose daily news fix is their morning paper would have had no idea that the World Trade Center was gone; that the Pentagon was aflame.
Only a handful of U.S. cities still have an afternoon paper, the p.m. edition being yet another victim of the corporate downsizing seizing the media industry. While many local dailies rushed "extra" editions out to report on the latest developments, the fact is that in the case of the recent terror attacks, the only real competition to the TV news reports was provided by online news outlets.
Radio covered the events extensively and well, but radio can't offer the visual impact of television or even print for that matter. New sites like CBSNews.com and CNN.com can and did offer video clips to accompany the written reports.
As Charles Carr details in the News & Reviews column last week, the online news coverage at times suffered from serious infrastructure issues not enough bandwidth to serve everyone who wanted to learn more. CNN.com reacted quickly and well by offering a text-based site when traffic was particularly heavy the graphics-free presentation made for quicker loading and allowed more people to access their servers at the same time.
But if the infrastructure is not yet able to handle the kind of user surge that a national disaster brings out, the reporting itself was very good.
For those who didn't have access to a television, or who prefer the control that online news gives the viewer (unlike broadcast news, where we passively accept what we're fed), the Internet provided a viable, informative resource. Both the New York Times and Washington Post updated their online reports frequently, and posted stories online before they appeared in print.
In San Diego, SignOnSanDiego.com the web site of the daily Union-Tribune did more than just repackage the national story. Interviews with travelers stranded at Lindbergh Field by the FAA's grounding order gave locals a feel for how this story affected them. SignOn (where I once served as a wire editor) may have had more video clips than the national outlets.
Unfortunately, the online news sites proved themselves to be just as capable of hype as their TV and newspaper counterparts. Within hours of the attack, it was already being compared to Pearl Harbor a ridiculous metaphor in that 60 years ago, we were attacked by a major industrial power with vast resources and a well-trained military. Then again, the media has never been known for its restraint nor sense of proportion. We'll leave those to the historians.
There is much more to the Internet than news sites, and much of the 'Net was aflame with topics related to the terrorist attacks.
Before the day was over, the first of a new type of con artistry was wending its way through cyberspace: Spam e-mail asking for donations to help the victims. Only the charities were fake the pitch a scam being run by the most utterly shameless and heartless crooks one can imagine.
In a truly nasty bit of chutzpah, this first post-disaster spam con included a note arguing that "spam-busters" (those who try to dam the ever-increasing flow of spam) are morally equivalent to those who kill unarmed civilians.
Finally, there are those whose evil is merely spiritual, such as the folks running an environmental e-mail list I had subscribed to. The day after the attack, said e-mail list included a vicious condemnation not of the attackers, but of Israel and in tones not even designed to hide the anti-Jewish sentiment behind it. Anti-Semites and other haters will always be around, of course (The Nation's web site had similar anti-Jewish garbage before the week was out), but even bigots usually have the good sense to hide low after such horrendous events. It is a mark of the age of the Internet, though, that the anonymity available online is reducing our collective sense of decency there isn't really any difference between the nuts in Iraq celebrating for the TV cameras or Americans finding some rationale to blame everything on the Jews (or blacks or Moslems or anyone else).
And if the Internet gives them a new tool for sharing their hate, it also provides the rest of us equal access for countering it with compassion.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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