Highway Without Traffic Cops

August 11, 1994|By PETER SCHRAG

Long before 1983 became 1984, it was clear that the dystopian future of George Orwell's novel would not come to pass in the industrialized West.

There were plenty of places where Big Brother was watching, including the Soviet Union, but (as in contemporary Iran) their dictatorships were far more likely to stand in the way of modern technologies -- and particularly of communications technology -- than to exploit it.

It was that fact as much as anything else that precipitated the failure and ultimate breakup of the Soviet Union. At a time when the capacity of the personal computers available even to Western teen-agers was growing exponentially, there simply was way that a centralized government could control information as the dictatorships of the 1930s and 1940s did and still progress into the modern world. If Mikhail Gorbachev understood anything, it was the implications of that simple fact.

What was not understood by too many -- and still isn't -- is how politically revolutionary the new communications technologies and their various applications have become in the West. Since the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton became the first candidate to use the so-called ''new media'' in a presidential campaign, there has been a lot of debate about whether Larry King or Rush Limbaugh or talk radio or tabloid television, not to mention the 30-second political commercial and the distribution of political faxes and videos, have replaced the ''old media'' -- the network news shows, the major newspapers, news magazines -- as the prime means of political communication.

There are a great many differences between the so-called old and new media, but surely the most important is that the latter are far less subject to the conventional standards of journalistic importance and balance, or to mediation by people, such as reporters and editors, who feel bound by their rules.

Perhaps more important, even the most thoughtful discussions of the issue -- most recently in a couple of short monographs published by the Twentieth Century Fund -- hardly take account of the huge volume of virtually unmonitored communications now taking place on the electronic bulletin boards and among the ''news groups'' on the Internet.

The impact of such groups on conventional communities, and in the creation of wholly new kinds of ''communities,'' has hardly been examined; the sociology of the Internet is barely out of its infancy.

But what's already apparent, both with respect to the talk shows and to the world of the ''information superhighway,'' is the radical absence of all conventional authority -- authority not just in the sense of governmental power, but in the absence of broader critical standards and judgments. In much of the world of talk radio, political video and Internet bulletin boards, what goes out is as likely to be shared ignorance and prejudice -- now amplified for thousands, in some cases millions -- as it is anything subject to any test of truth, fairness or balance.

In ''The Beat Goes On,'' the most recent of those Twentieth Century Fund publications, Tom Rosenstiel, who writes about the relationship between the media and national politics for the Los Angeles Times, says the press -- meaning the old media -- should ''play the role of referee over the public dialogue [in the new media], without overplaying its hand as pundit.''

But considering the sheer volume of the stuff that's ginned up on the talk shows and on the Internet, that's virtually impossible. As Mr. Rosenstiel himself suggests, so much of the political dialogue ''now takes place outside the purview of journalists,'' not to mention anyone else who may know or care about the

facts -- economists, statisticians, scientists, historians -- that trying to play referee is like trying to stand in front of an approaching freight train.

Most recent discussions about the old media's loss of public credibility worry about the influence of what Mr. Rosenstiel calls ''tabloidization'' -- pandering to the lowest common denominator public whim rather than playing the significant stories. Correctly, Mr. Rosenstiel proposes that the old media hold ''more tightly'' to their traditional standards.

But like other commentators, he may be fatally underestimating the radical power of the new technologies -- both in validating that shared ignorance and in Balkanizing the larger community: archipelagoes of special interest and belief that will pay little attention to the common interest or the whistles of the outside referees.

Orwell, a man of the '30s and '40s, understandably focused on what may have been a historically unique coincidence of media technologies and totalitarian political systems that may never again occur in the West. What he -- and the rest of those concerned about democracy -- did not (and could not) foresee was the danger of the converse: a democratization so radical and cynical that no responsible political authority can long withstand its leveling power. We had better start worrying about it now.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy News Service.

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