Legendary New York Times obit writer Alden Whitman once observed, “Death, the cliché assures us, is the great leveler; but it obviously levels some a great deal more than others.”
So, if the business of Internet content is dead, as John Motavalli contends in Bamboozled at the Revolution: How Big Media Lost Billions in the Battle for the Internet, who got leveled the most? According to the author, all the major online media outlets got blindsided, with the exception of AOL, which was spared because it made tons of money and swallowed a media empire in the process. And Motavalli, who watched the rest of the industry unravel while working as a consultant for various online interests such as Hachette Filipacchi Magazine, has no trouble placing the blame squarely on some easy targets while missing the larger problems plaguing the e-scape.
While I am no fan of big media executives, I find the suits versus the khakis (i.e., techies) paradigm to be a little simplistic. Especially when Motavalli forgets to include the third party in this drama, the other khakis (i.e., the low-level journalists or, in techie terms, the “content providers”). But perhaps more egregious than underestimating the technological investment required to keep pace was the underestimation of the intellectual investment that Internet journalism mandated, including recognizing the pandemonium that digital media would unleash. It’s not a unique irony that Motavalli would diminish the most obvious explanation for Big Media’s loss to the Internet Hydra, but it is curious that he misses altogether the impact of journalistic ethics (or lack thereof) in the age of culpability.
For nearly two years, I toiled in the news department at Fox News Online–first as a copy editor until my title inexplicably jumped to news editor shortly after being hired, and eventually as the books section editor. From my vantage point, I quickly came to the conclusion that bad journalism was dooming the business of Internet content.
When I started at Fox in the fall of 1998, things were promising enough. During my first week, Monica Lewinsky was testifying before Congress, and unlike the Fox News Channel our coverage was fairly sober, as we relied mostly on wire copy. The person I reported to was a bricks-and-mortar journalist, having worked for five years as a copy editor at the Wall Street Journal. We spoke the same language, and he didn’t stare blankly when I asked him a question about a topic like libel. But within months, a disturbing pattern emerged: The people with traditional journalism experience were pushed to the margins, while the people with none were promoted. My supervisor was moved to the features department, while I suddenly found myself reporting to a novice with little more than a stint at Soap Opera Digest to his credit. I began wondering if my traditional credentials–five years of newspaper experience and a master’s degree in journalism from NYU–were working against me.
Around the same time, another “traditional” journalist and a recently departed features editor at Fox penned an essay for Columbia Journalism Review lamenting the state of digital journalism. Recalling a typical news day, Frank Houston wrote, “The reporters who will cobble together copy to post on our site are getting their information from television. And the Web is at that moment recycling it to millions of news surfers, most of them probably turning to the Web at work because there are no televisions on their desks.” And that was accurate. We were reporting on what Fox News Channel was reporting. And Fox News Channel was reporting on what Sky TV was reporting. Like a grownup version of Pass It On, something was getting lost in the translation. Meanwhile, I watched in silent horror as some of our “reporters” filed stories from Jakarta at 10 am and then Moscow at noon–a remarkable feat for writers who never left the West 18th Street office. No one in charge seemed to understand that the dateline implied that the reporter was physically in that city. The news executives didn’t know a style guide from a turnstile.
On the day NATO-led bombing began in Kosovo, the Fox News Channel was reporting that an Italian television network was reporting that a NATO plane had been downed. The senior vice president of news asked me, “Why isn’t this top of the site?” I told her we had no story from the wires confirming it. She said I didn’t need to wait for a wire story. I should just write the story myself, complete with my byline and a bogus dateline. I refused and was eventually run out of the news department. Needless to say, someone else was willing to write the piece, despite the fact that no NATO plane was downed, at least not until five days later.
If Motavalli had ventured out of the boardrooms–for that is his focus–and bothered to interview the newsroom underlings, he might have understood the full scope of how bad things were. In one rare instance, he interviews a former features writer at iGuide (Rupert Murdoch’s precursor to Fox News Online). Pavia Rosati’s account was quite telling of the industry at large: “A reporter would take a digital camera to the field. She would come back, and HTML her story and press a button and publish it. And sure enough that is what I did. The first week I was there, Jerry Garcia died, a crowd had gathered in Central Park, and I was assigned to cover it. I was barely a journalist, certainly not a reporter by any stretch of the imagination,” she recalled. Despite being a sometime-journalist (the book jacket identifies Motavalli as the first computer/Internet columnist for the New York Post), he doesn’t ask, “Where were the editors?” He never questions the wisdom of letting nonjournalists have so much editorial autonomy. He flinches only when he notes that another writer in Rosati’s office was earning $20,000 a month for a music column that hadn’t even debuted. Never mind that the product is garbage–how much did it cost?
Motavalli even criticizes a move by the American Society of Magazine Editors to clean things up on the web. In June 1997 the ASME issued guidelines for online publications. These guidelines included reasonable suggestions, such as a separation of advertising and editorial content, including all banners being clearly marked as advertisement. Expressing contempt for the idea, Motavalli asks, “But what hold did it have over the Web, and, for that matter, who appointed ASME as overseer of the new medium?” A better question would have been, “How might these standards have improved the subpar content of online news outlets?” While these guidelines may not have held up as industry tenets, at least someone recognized that the journalistic anarchy was unacceptable. Had online content providers adopted universal standards, it probably would have been a huge step forward for Internet news.
But instead of worrying about pesky ethical questions, Motavalli focuses on the monetary barometer when judging the industry’s successes or failures. Throughout the 1990s, technology money was flowing unabated. Before the spring 2000 dot-com crash, the Nasdaq grew 795 percent, peaking at 5048.62 on March 13, 2000. News companies, including time-honored institutions like the New York Times, were investing tens of millions in their digital divisions, which were often subsequently spun off with great fanfare. But nothing else rivaled the sheer scope of the AOL Time Warner marriage, which is probably why he spends a good chunk of the book examining it. On Monday, January 10, 2000, America Online announced its merger with the world’s largest media company, Time Warner–“merger” being a somewhat inaccurate noun. AOL, which was founded a mere fifteen years earlier, bought Time Warner. That seismic aftershock, Motavalli notes, was probably Henry Luce rolling over in his grave.
In 2000 Gerald Levin lorded over a Time Warner empire so vast that it probably would have struck Ben Bagdikian as implausible in 1983 when he wrote his prescient book Media Monopoly. But Levin frittered it all away for a chance to join forces with the new online superpower. Levin’s fiefdom included everything from Time to CNN to Warner Bros. Studios and a whole lot in between. Steve Case, head of AOL, merely oversaw the most successful Internet onramp, albeit an onramp for beginners. Not since Cortez embarked on his quest for El Dorado has a man been as duped as Levin.
Motavalli, who spends most of the book breathlessly rehashing the bios of the seemingly interchangeable star executives of Time Warner and AOL, notes that Levin seemed like a genius for a day or two–just enough time for the Time Warner executives to cash out. But it didn’t take long for the Titanic Merger to live up to its billing, and the ship slowly began taking on water. The day the merger was announced, Time Warner stock was trading in the low $60s and quickly rose to just shy of $100 by day’s end. But as the merger’s three-year anniversary approaches, Levin is out to pasture and AOL Time Warner stock is trading at less than $13. So not only did AOL fail to increase the new company’s net worth, it has dramatically decreased it.
This wasn’t the first time, but it certainly has become the most dramatic instance of media executives abandoning all reason while being seduced by the promises of the Internet. While Motavalli’s account of the AOL Time Warner debacle illustrates the type of bad decision being made across the industry, it does little to explain why audiences weren’t pleased with what they were offered online.
This is an area into which few media critics have delved: a thorough content analysis of the major news outlets on the web. One of the reasons web news content isn’t adequately examined is that so much of it no longer exists. Due to the ephemeral nature of the medium, web content often disappears into a black hole. For example, I could easily look at a ten-year period in the history of newspapers (catalogued and stored in libraries, they become part of the historical record) and assess the content. But if I wanted to pull together a book of Internet news blunders, and I wanted to include that “NATO Plane Downed” headline, it would be impossible. There’s little chance that Fox still has digital or hard copy. At Fox, I was told, “Get the story up fast. If it’s wrong, pull it off the server and destroy it. No one will ever know the difference.” I can’t even find on the web a single article I wrote during my Fox tenure. And unless libraries get in the business of documenting every version of every story ever posted on every major Internet news site, we won’t have any “Dewey Wins” headlines in the future–a huge blow for scholarship.
Bamboozled never considers the medium’s fleeting character and how that might breed bad journalism. No matter how many bells and whistles a website boasts, if the journalism is shoddy, then the audience will go elsewhere. And recent evidence supports this assumption. According to the July Nielsen/NetRatings, newspapers run nine of the top twenty news sites. This can only be seen as a positive, as newspapers mostly use their own print content, which has to meet relatively rigorous standards. The rest of the content comes from news wires like Associated Press and Reuters. Founded in 1848 and 1851 respectively, these two wire services have strong traditions of creating reliable breaking-news reportage. Even Motavalli concedes the value of the old-school news wires. He notes, “They’re staffed by people who can churn out a quick dispatch while news is breaking, without all the preparation and sourcing required of daily newspaper journalists.” While most wire service reporters and editors would argue that their preparation and sourcing is equal to that of their daily counterparts, Motavalli’s backhand compliment illustrates how their proliferation is an important component of the online news landscape.
But then Motavalli follows up the wire services accolade by completely underestimating the intelligence of the online news audience. He writes, “In truth, most users didn’t care or even notice where the news came from; many probably assumed Yahoo! had a news department. News was no longer owned by any of the big American news companies, but by the portals.”Motavalli is mistaken, though, because the two major news wires do own the majority of the news available online. The portals merely post it or butcher it, depending on their whims.
By the end of Bamboozled, Motavalli predicts “AOL Time Warner will dominate” the new content landscape. He is correct that two of their properties rank in the top ten news sites–CNN (No. 1) and Time magazine (No. 10). But “dominate” is a stretch.
Meanwhile, the Fox News website has fallen out of the top ten. On a recent visit, I found the same wire stories as at every other news site, but the original content included dandies such as “Junk Science” columnist Steven Milloy’s “DDT Could Thwart West Nile Virus.” Nevertheless, Motavalli might consider the current state of affairs at Fox a success. After massive layoffs in January 2001, the digital news division is now creating bad journalism at a fraction of the cost.