Is the Internet now our most serious communications medium?
As the days and the weeks pass after the attacks of Sept. 11, an interesting development is taking place: American media is being beaten, and beaten solidly, by foreign competitors in the hunt for the stories of the new war against terrorism. This is particularly true of electronic media, whose shortcomings -- especially in terms of international coverage -- are on view for all to see. While American media seems fixated on the anthrax threat, the rest of the world is receiving better information about the larger, more complex issues.
It's an old warrior leading the pack -- the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has produced absolutely outstanding coverage of the post-Sept. 11 world, especially its probing examinations of the issues that lead to the creation of this new world. Meanwhile, British papers like The Guardian and The Independent, are offering both better in-depth coverage, and a wider variety of opinions, than are most American counterparts.
The Independent's opinion piece "Don't Tell Me How I Should Worship," (http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=99438) for instance, is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces I've seen on Islam and the West. This kind of commentary is almost completely missing in the US. As the head of one journalism department said to me recently, the US media is spending so much time flag-waving, or covering the story of the minute until you're tired of hearing about it, that they are not doing a very good job covering all aspects of the story.
(There are exceptions to the rule, of course -- The New Republic and The Weekly Standard have produced some great opinion pieces, even if they don't exactly present a wide variety of them. And CNN has shown once again why it really is one of the best news sources in the world. And if I may blow our own horn a bit, the Monitor has shone for the quality of its coverage as well -- it least if you can believe the hundreds of people who've written to or e-mailed us.)
But most of us would still be in the dark about what's happening in the rest of the world, if not for one very important factor -- the Internet.
Thanks to the Internet, you can read The South China Morning Post from Hong Kong, The Age from Melbourne, Australia, The Dawn from Pakistan, The Daily Star from Lebanon, The Jerusalem Post from Israel, The BBC from London and the CBC from Canada, before you even have to look at American media -- the result is a range of coverage and opinion that gives those interested in the news a much deeper and broader feel for what the story is, and how it will affect us today and into the future.
True, some cable TV or satellite-dish companies offer the BBC or CBC but they are almost part of a premium package that can add more than a few bucks to the regular TV bills. But the Internet is found in more and more American homes, offices, schools, libraries etc. these days, and for the first time ever, Americans can see what the rest of the world is saying and thinking -- which may be more important than ever before.
Jon Katz, the well-known media and cultural critic, posted a very interesting column (http://slashdot.org/features/01/10/05/1643224.shtml) on the website slashdot.org the other day.
"Big stories change media," he wrote. "Radio's high-water mark was World War II, and TV news came of age after John F. Kennedy's assassination. Elvis and his death gave birth to modern mass-marketed tabloid media. Increasingly, it appears the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the shooting war that began [Oct. 7] have made more distinct another evolutionary leap in information: the Net is emerging as our most serious communications medium and clearly the freest and most diverse."
Katz is right on the money. The limitations of other media -- time, space and depth, in particular, in various quantities -- mean that the Internet is becoming the one medium where Americans who are interested in getting the 'real facts' of the story can go to find them. Even most American media also recognize this -- witness the regular exhortations to audiences and readers to 'go to the Web to get more on this story.'
If Sept. 11 has launched a new age, one where America can no longer remain in an isolationist state, but must become a greater player -- and partner -- in the world community -- than the Internet is probably the medium that will best suit this new world. And its best source of news as well.