Controversy continues over Time's story on 'cyberporn' and the Internet

MAGAZINES

July 23, 1995|By Scott L. Powers | Scott L. Powers,Boston Globe

The "skinback" of sorts in this week's Time magazine (July 24) on its flame-inducing "cyberporn" cover report of July 3 speaks volumes (and bytes) about the increasingly cannibalistic relationships between magazines and their on-line brethren.

This week's Time story by Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who wrote the original piece that hit newsstands at the end of June, reflects back three weeks and details some of the battles in the "flame war" that began when he used a study written by Marty Rimm (who was an undergraduate at Carnegie-Mellon University) as a hook for a story on Internet pornography.

Among the Time story's claims that tossed gas on an already heated debate between anti-censorship and anti-pornography activists: 83.5 percent of all images stored in Usenet newsgroups (a section of the Internet where ideas, articles and images can be shared) are pornographic and easily available to minors. The story was illustrated by a wide-eyed, open-mouthed child created by Matt Mahurin, the same artist who photo-illustrated the controversial mug shot of O. J. Simpson on a Time cover last year.

Mr. Elmer-DeWitt had an exclusive on Mr. Rimm's study, which is being published this week in the Georgetown Law Journal along with related essays, including one from noted anti-pornography activist Catherine MacKinnon. The Time senior editor for technology maintains that he was constrained by the law journal from seeing the full study.

Among his revelations this week: Mr. Rimm "grossly exaggerated the extent of pornography on the Internet by conflating findings from private adult-bulletin-board systems that require credit cards for payments (and many are off-limits to minors) with those from the public networks (which are not)." He offers the opinion of Vanderbilt University associate professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak that many of Mr. Rimm's statistics are "misleading or meaningless . . . that pornographic files represent less than one-half of one percent of all messages on the Internet."

Mr. Elmer-DeWitt now points out that "computer-wise citizens of cyberspace tend to be strong civil libertarians . . . [who] believe that Time, by publicizing the Rimm study, was contributing to a mood of popular hysteria . . . that might lead to a crackdown." That's been the take on stories published by the Washington Post and the New York Times. But nowhere has the outcry been so loud as on the Internet itself.

Increasingly, the Internet is the first on the scene with reaction to events in and out of the media -- often before stories are even published. Anyone with America Online could have read the Time stories at least a day before they hit newsstands.

Wired weighs in

But, as detailed in a fascinating and exhaustive report on Wired magazine's HotWired WWW site (http://www.hotwired.com/), the outcry began last year, when word began leaking out about Mr. Rimm and his study. The Net-savvy Mr. Elmer-DeWitt was even warned of the study's problems before publication, according to HotWired. The Hot Wired report "JournoPorn" chronicles the events leading up to the Time story, details some of the problems that are often inherent in journalistic "exclusives," digs into Mr. Rimm's past and interviews Mr. Elmer-DeWitt (he calls the study "immature" and says the headline and art were "over-the-top," but that he didn't see them until all the decision makers had gone home; and he wasn't willing to fight the political battle to change them hours before publication).

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