Saturday, May 07, 2011

A New Old Media

The term "shot heard round the world" was first applied to the bullet that apparently started the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. This event occurred in 1775, but it took until 1837 before Ralph Waldo Emerson retroactively bestowed the title. And in a metaphorical sense, he was not wrong. The world did hear about this shot. It just took awhile. News didn't travel fast in those days, as exemplified by the Battle of New Orleans, a War of 1812 battle that was fought after the war was over, since news of the peace treaty did not reach the combatants for two months.

If I had easy access to news archives (and the time to study them), I would be interested in investigating how much the newspapers of that era devoted to covering the dissemination of the news. My hypothesis is that they didn't mention anything related to how people acquired knowledge of the major events of the world. I think it would have been taken for granted that information was at a premium, that it did spread, but that it spread in uneven, unpredictable, and imperfect ways. In such a climate, I wonder how much responsibility news publications felt to be the official standard bearers of truth and accuracy. Our contemporary sensibilities are that media outlets should be held to the highest standards of factual accountability, almost as if they are presenting exhibits in a courtroom. But from what I know of newspapers of the early days of America, they were highly ideological. They would seek to inform the public, but they had an agenda for doing so (and one can surmise how facts, already slippery things when people attempt to view them neutrally, become distorted when they are viewed through the prism of a particular bias).

Last week, a Navy Seal fired a shot which was likewise heard around the world. And unlike the shots fired in the 18th or the 19th centuries, the time lag between that shot and when the world heard about it has drastically diminished. But not only did the media report on the shot itself, part of the story was how the public came to learn about it (and how they reacted to it). The role of social media was highlighted in many articles, with stories about how the news first leaked on Twitter, how a man in Pakistan inadvertently tweeted about the operation before the shot was even fired, how sports fans in Philadelphia started a celebratory chant after many of them received the news from mobile devices, and how many people first found out about the death of Osama bin Laden through either Facebook or Twitter.

I personally found out from a Facebook post. I commented on the post saying, "This is the biggest news I've ever learned from Facebook." Moments after seeing the post, I ran across another post claiming that bin Laden had been killed in a bombing. Later I switched over to "old media" and I learned that it was not a bombing, but an intense firefight with Navy Seals. Later I learned that there was only one armed resistor in the compound. Still later I learned that bin Laden had used a woman as a human shield, later I learned that the woman was his wife, and still later I learned that he didn't use her as a human shield at all. And later still I saw several links on Facebook to purported pictures of bin Laden's corpse (though I knew enough not to click on them).

It's easy to blame social media for the rapid dissemination of false or misleading information in the wake of a major news event. But neither Twitter or Facebook existed at the time of the Columbine school shooting, and we now know that much of what was reported in the immediate aftermath of that event was false. And Facebook has nothing to do with the misinformation that was spread after the death of Pat Tillman.

Newspapers have been referred to as the "first draft of history," a description that simultaneously celebrates and cautions. And it is apparent that we have entered an age in which even that description needs revision, where a new media has taken on that function. But as exciting as it has been to see a new media develop in my lifetime, to be able to see huge stories break on platforms that I wouldn't have recognized even a few years ago, I would be even more excited about the emergence of another "new media," one that could have theoretically developed centuries ago, but never did.

Wouldn't it be nice if somewhere between the first draft of history and whatever draft is currently being disseminated in the halls of academia, we had some forum through which the public at large could be informed about events that, through the passage of time, we can more clearly comprehend? Obviously, investigative journalists can break stories at any time, but with the pressures that media outlets face to stay current, unless there is some outside agent that provides motivation, that first draft runs the risk of becoming ossified. So I propose a new media, which can find its niche by its devotion to the old. And there is a bit of a precedent: if Emerson could "report" on an event 62 years later and give it a title that still reverberates, there is no reason that shots fired today (or last week) can't do the same.


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