As a former executive producer of CBS Morning News, a one-time reporter for The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a current contributing editor to Wired and featured columnist for its Hotwired Web site, Jon Katz has seen old and new journalism from the inside out. His recent books, Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits and Blockheads Like William Bennett and Media Rants: Postpolitics in the Digital Nation, dissect what's wrong with mass media and what's going right with newer forms of expression. REASON Senior Editor Nick Gillespie talked with Katz via 19th-century technology--the telephone.
Q: You've said the 1990s are the "decade of the mediaphobe." Why is that?
A: New media--interactive, cable, the Web--are really sucking power away from entrenched institutions--[big] journalism, academe, government. I think it's a good thing, but people in those institutions don't. If you're in journalism or politics, there's a loss of power and that's very frightening. Journalism in particular approaches changes in technology and culture like they're dread viruses. That's why they talk about the Internet almost exclusively in terms of dangers and perversions. The excessive concern for the safety of children masks their fears about losing power. The Internet is actually an incredibly safe environment for children.
Q: What's so new about new media?
A: Some people involved in the Internet think they're reinventing the wheel. They're not. What we're seeing is a Czech Spring among people who have never had access to media before and can now speak. It's thrilling--and it's a return to the original, more-individualistic tradition of journalism dating back to the 18th century. We're seeing the end of phony journalistic objectivity on the Web. Objectivity never had a moral imperative to it; it was always a marketing technique. Increasingly, people are rejecting it in favor of media that does have a point of view.
Q: What about questions of accountability? Critics claim Web-based journalism has few or no standards.
A: I think there's a lot of good information on the Web; information has a way of being held accountable for itself. The issue with a Matt Drudge [the Web-based columnist who claimed a Clinton administration staffer was a wife beater and then apologized for the story] is whether he libeled someone irresponsibly. Matt Drudge was called very dramatically to account for what he wrote. In general, I think you're much more accountable on the Web because there's hundreds of thousands of people jumping down your throat if you're wrong. If I write a column that is stupid or factually incorrect, I'm held brutally accountable: Two thousand people jump down my throat in a minute.