In college I majored in computer science, with a minor in mass communications. That encompasses a wide range of media, including movies, music, television, and print media. My school, in fact, specializes in the recording industry, and some of the recording artists you know of today went to school there and/or recorded music there at some point. For me, though, it was television and print media.
I believed at the time (1990) that computers had the potential to become a completely new medium, blending the depth of print with the immediacy of television. Moreover, I believed they had the potential to transform how ordinary people communicated with each other. And having experienced the beginnings of that transformation for myself, I wanted to understand where media had come from in order to apply those lessons to where I believed media was about to go.
Let me briefly diverge and try to recap thirteen years of Internet history in five minutes. It’s important background for my present story.
By 1993 I’d found my way onto the Internet, which at the time was a comparatively small network of universities, defense contractors and the military, and exactly one commercial ISP as we understand it today, which only had service in a few cities, and a special exception to offer the service in the first place. Even then, the people on the network were beginning to harness its power for disseminating information to worldwide audiences. The Web was a precocious two year old toddler. But even then it seemed you could find almost anything on the Internet, and more information was added every day.
In 1994, the floodgates opened when the Internet was opened to the general public. Companies began springing up everywhere to offer dialup access, even before most people knew what it was. Then companies themselves started getting online. I remember in 1996 when I first saw a Web address in a television commercial. It was the Pepsi commercial, in fact. And I, always trying to be a bit ahead of the curve, already had one of the first broadband cable modem connections in the country. Places like Geocities began springing up which let people publish anything they wanted to, in exchange for displaying advertising for companies both online and offline. Much of this material is still online, and much of what isn’t has been preserved by the Internet Archive.
Then came the dot-com boom, Y2K, and the dot-com bust, which I presume you’re all familiar with. Untold billions of dollars poured into the Internet for several years, and not all of it came back.
Today the Web as we know it is fifteen years old, and the Internet itself stretches back into the mists of prehistory. Okay, the 1960’s, but who’s counting? It supplanted many other methods of information retrieval which came before it, such as gopher, and someday it too will fade as the next even better idea replaces it. But today it’s what we have. I could go on talking about it for ages, but the point of this story is somewhat different.
I never officially became a traditional journalist, but throughout my time on the Internet, I’ve always published something. (Some bits from the Internet Archive: 2001. There are other things that go farther back, but you’ll never find them unless I tell you exactly what to look for and exactly where to look for it. That’s a story for another post, perhaps.)
This site is an extension of that fine tradition. When I first began, I simply said whatever I felt like saying. I didn’t pay too much attention to whether it was well-written, objective or unbiased. Then I started to watch such things again, and tried to write objective, unbiased stories that I might turn in to some major newspaper or to the AP. You can judge whether I succeeded, but I like to think I have some idea of what I’m doing. A strange thing happened, though, when I did that: the site suffered. Fewer people left comments, and traffic and subscribers declined.
So I began to drop all pretense of being objective and unbiased, and began presenting the facts with my own analysis. By November, one year after the site began, things were looking up again. And looking through my “best of” retrospective, it appears that the best work I’ve done hasn’t been objective or unbiased at all.
What’s different is that I have a bias unlike almost any other journalist’s. I am neither progressive nor conservative. Instead, I bring my libertarian world view to every story I write, and when I decide to let that spill into my stories, rather than keep it out, I get amazing things like the story about Deborah Davis and the San Francisco Proposition H story, which have had real impacts on real issues facing real people. Without it, I’m just another reporter out of far too many, and not the best you’ve read, at that. But with it, as you can see, something special happens.
If you’re a journalist reading this, (and I know at least two of you are) you’re probably thinking, “We aren’t supposed to shape the response to news, only present it, as clearly and truthfully as possible.” I believed that once. But the truth is, as clearly as I can see it, that we do already shape the response to news, even if we don’t intend to.
Here’s a clear example: Mark Egan of Reuters devoted dozens of column inches to extolling the virtues of Big Brother-style surveillance cameras reducing crime in East Orange, N.J., and spent all of two paragraphs on counterarguments without going into any real depth on such important questions as: Where did the criminals go? Are there residents who don’t like being under 24-hour surveillance? If I were his editor, I would have sent him off to do additional reporting.
Bias isn’t a bad thing, in itself, but it can be if we aren’t aware of how it colors our reporting and shapes the public’s responses to our reporting. I try to ensure that my own bias is as crystal clear as the facts I report. But in case you missed it somewhere along the line, I believe that true liberty as described by great thinkers like Locke and Jefferson, not the respective illusions of liberty presented by the two parties currently in power, is the only system in which people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds will be able to associate and live peaceably together.
It wasn’t until I decided that stupid things needed to be called stupid, in so many words, that I saw very much success here. But now I’m beginning to see it. I can’t always measure the impact I have with any given story, but sometimes I can see the impact. I know that members of Congress, White House staffers, and countless military and civil government employees across all departments read what I write. Sometimes they tell me how stupid their bureaucracy really is. And that’s when I know I’ve done a good job.