Scandals and the Internet—or lack of it

The Detroit Free Press and the rival News decided to print home-delivery editions just three days a week. Competition from the Web killed off the other four days. Similar scenarios are or will be unfolding elsewhere, as shown by the move of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to the Web.

So how does the Internet figure in The Solomon Scandals? Mostly through the lack of it. During the 1970s, the main era in my Washington newspaper novel, the Net was a long way from a mass phenomenon. Alternative papers existed like the DC Gazette, but without the reach of the mainstream media.

image In some respects, the big boys in the mainstream actually had their good points. The most established papers could pay their people decently. Where else would readers go for local ads? Even TV was only so much of a threat. Google, Craig’s List, and eBay had yet to suck up advertising. And fewer video distractions existed. The very best newspapers benefited from mass literacy and in some cases even contributed to it through smart, meaty writing. Some of that goes on today despite the rise of video.

But the mainstream press often had and has a tendency to dig just so deeply. In The Brass Check, his nonfiction expose published originally in 1919, Upton Sinclair made a powerful case against America’s newspapers. He tells how the Chicago Tribune actually tried to discredit his expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry, the very stuff that inspired his muckraking novel The Jungle. Many newspapers refused to review The Jungle, especially in a positive way.

The Net vs. media coverups

Flash ahead to the 1970s. Here’s Jonathan Stone eager tell the world about President Eddy Bullard‘s secret investment in an IRS/CIA building, at the time of its construction—the one that has just collapsed, with hundreds of people dead. Will he go on TV to share the facts that his editors wouldn’t let him print? No, instead he tries to sneak his story into the Telegram, the dominant daily, which easily overshadows its evening competitor. Both papers must worry about local advertising from the real estate community and prefer not to offend it.

So what would have happened today, in the era of the Net? Plenty, maybe even before hundreds died in the collapse. Who knows, perhaps enough of an outcry would have arisen for the feds to avert the collapse.

1. Lew Fenton, the construction union man in the novel who sounds the alarm that Vulture’s Point may tumble down, might have posted his concerns on the union site. Would people have paid attention? Still a bit iffy. But he’d have found a larger audience, and perhaps some construction experts might have rallied to his aid

2. Some local bloggers might have taken up the cause and warned about the possible collapse. Again, still no guarantee that this would have resulted in massive publicity. But the more adventurous members of the mainstream media would have had more of a chance of noticing and acting since their readers could call up the blogs, too. Between the accounts on the union site and those in the blogs, the story about the rickety building would have been neatly packaged for the mass media (for the time when the mainstream press had no choice but to print the story).

3. Perhaps unions representing federal workers at Vulture’s Point would have been more responsive, given all the details floating around in the blogosphere. Maybe extremely so. When I investigated an AWOL cafeteria, which was missing from the leased headquarters building of the Environmental Protection Agency, despite a contract calling for one, I got help from union officials. The union involved was far, far more honest than the one at Vulture’s Point.

4. Stone himself might have gone to work for a public interest group or another investigative organization and have blogged away about the shoddy construction practices of Seymour Solomon and others. I’m not sure. He was a bit of a journalistic careerist, not just a lover of good muck. But if he risked his career in his efforts to sneak the story into the Telegram, then why not?

image Looking ahead, one wonders about the future of the Internet as a place for the unmentionable to circulate. I’m optimistic, long term. But whether the issue is pornography or copyright, you can bet that certain politicians will do their best to muzzle the Net.The possible election of Sarah Palin to the White House just might be a disastrous setback for civil liberties online and in general, given all the wacky, McCarthy-style charges she was making against Barack Obama. We may yet see her in the Oval Office, merrily appointing Supreme Court Justices and FCC commissioners and helping to sway congressional elections.

image Moving still further into the future, imagine the era of cyborgs and digitized mind-readng. Will the government live down to the fantasies of the tin-foil hat crowd and insist on implants inside the skulls of the uppity—with Net-based, real-time reporting?  “Reporting chips”? Maybe used against real reporters, to render them useless for investigative journalism? That possibility in fact arises in Scandals‘ afterword—simply as satire. But who knows? Big Brother‘s telescreens could be rather pathetic compared to the possible Net-enabled threat ahead.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that, in its original form, appeared before Scandals’ official publication.

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David Rothman

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