Media Watch

Feeding Frenzy

David Cassel

"It's amazing what passes for news these days." In 1995, David Cassel dissected the media obsession with the Internet and other online services, revealing a 'web' of misinformation as ignorant as it is inflammatory.

Last April the following line appeared in "And in that revolutionary spirit, as kind of a celebration of a new age of personal freedom and exploration, I signed on as TrixiDo."

You guessed it. Another long article in the Business Section of the San Francisco Chronicle about a reporter -- this time, Jesse Kornbluth -- "undercover" as a female in an AOL chat room. (April 5)

That post seems like it's from a different era of media coverage. At the time, a similar article--"You Make Me Feel Like a Virtual Woman"--had appeared in the L.A. Times. ("The record is quite clear: I'm male. And a straight male at that. But...")

Amused by the reporters' lack of internet savvy, some posters noted that that's what happens when reporters cover the Internet from the perspective of their AOL accounts. One added, "It's amazing what passes for news these days." They could disdain newspaper writers grappling with the technical details of their assignments. Seasoned users could easily pick out their mistakes, posting derision at bad media coverage.

But it's taken a serious turn.


By now we've all heard about the Seattle teenager who ran away from home. Why? Because the Seattle Times chose to report the boy's father's belief that the changing password on an 800 number "indicates an organized attempt by adults to recruit boys like Daniel."

In fact, the boy was watching "The Price is Right" and the Science Fiction Channel at the home of a teenaged friend in San Francisco, listening to CD's in a nearby music store. "Now I know the San Francisco area really well," he said. The boy phoned and e-mailed his parents while he was gone. And an FBI spokesman pointed out "It's not against the law to run away from home."

But the parents' speculation fueled lurid media coverage. Phrases like "On-line seduction" and "Cyberspace Predator" were used in national headlines -- usually with verbs like "lured". Papers around the country reported the boy's father's belief that his son was being groomed for a gay teenage prostitution ring.

A child-advocacy group would later tell Time that in fact, more than 800,000 children disappear each year. Indeed, the only unusual element was the e-mail received prior to his disappearance. But before the boy was found, the papers had found another teenager who had ALSO run away from home after receiving encouraging e-mail. The case of a missing 13-year-old Kentucky girl prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to write:

"We've been noticing this going on, and we expect it to get even worse as computers become much more easily accessible to children and as these perverts and child molesters and pedophiles find new and exciting ways to lure kids out," said Roy Stephens, who heads the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations, based in Omaha, Neb., and serving nonprofit child-advocacy groups across the country.

There followed a spate of negative internet articles, almost daily...

"Any hot guys here?" "Yes." "Want to go private?" In this exchange Monday, two America Online users agreed to leave the "Gay and Lesbian" online chat session and enter a "private room" -- the cyberspace equivalent of slipping behind closed doors. It was through just such an encounter on AOL, authorities believe, that a San Francisco man calling himself "Damien Starr" lured a high school sophomore from the Seattle area into leaving home and hopping a bus to the Bay Area three weeks ago."

(The lead from a front page story in the June 6 San Francisco Examiner.)

Days later, the FBI broke the news to the reporters about the San Francisco "man". "The glitch in this whole thing is he is a juvenile." At about the same time the media realized the main suspect in the Kentucky girl's case was "a young man", and quietly dropped both stories.


These stories show what happens when the national news media focus bright lights on a pair of anecdotes involving teenagers.

In fact, the Seattle boy's father acknowledged that there were "issues" between him and his son; the boy had been talking to his online friend for months. During the boy's disappearance, a nonprofit agency for missing and abducted children gave the father advice, "some of which he followed, some of which he didn't. It caused a lot of grief."

After it was over, the San Jose Mercury News reported a phone conversation with the boy's mother. She said, "There are no indications that he is gay," after which the phone connection was interrupted. Ruth Montgomery could be heard to say sternly, "Don't do this to Mommy! You don't do this to your Mommy!"

After several similar admonishments from Ruth Montgomery, an angry young male voice shouted, "You'll just make it worse!"

"He's upset," Ruth Montgomery said to the reporter. "I'd better hang up."

The Mercury News, based in Silicon Valley-based, seemed to have a better handle on the story. In their coverage, they changed the word "enticed" to "apparently enticed", and noted wryly when the parents arrived in San Francisco, "They apparently flew down with a television news crew from Seattle."

And the Seattle Times, too. In their coverage, the Times reporter noted without irony, "Montgomery was halfway to the gate when he realized he had left his briefcase at the X-ray conveyor..." And in their version of the story, the boy's mother says "Just consider it a vacation."


SunBaby: I've been grounded. TrixiDo: Bummer. Sure glad that doesn't happen to me any more. SunBaby: How come? TrixiDo: Well, actually, the issue just doesn't come up. SunBaby: Your parents are pretty cool? TrixiDo: Well, no. Truth is, I'm an adult. My name's Ken.

Not a cyberspace predator, but a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the Business Section, no less. A "technology" reporter describing his adventures on America Online.

Within a few weeks, these same reporters were asking teenagers in AOL chat rooms how many had been approached by an older person expressing interest in young boys or girls. The San Jose Mercury News even placed ads in every edition saying "If you're younger than 18 and on-line, we want to hear from you..."

Either way, these reporters got what they deserved...

Chilly69: Hi, TrixiDo. Can I share a bizarre fantasy? TrixiDo: Sure. Chilly69: I'm a bright, sharp young m who seeks interrogation/humiliation scenario administered by superior f (must sound weird, huh?)

This became an easy story. Local TV stations hungry for news would arrange trysts with unsuspecting AOL members, posing as teenaged girls. Sensing an opportunity, the Guardian Angels announced they would also take up the practice.

With or without evidence, the idea that "cyberspace" represented an ominous danger to our children became rooted in the national conciousness. And then the U.S. Senate voted on the "Communications Decency Act".


"I'm a mother and a grandmother, and I don't want my kids to have access to this stuff, and I don't consider it part of their First Amendment right". That was U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, testifying before a Senate subcommittee on regulating the internet. In this case, the thing she didn't want her kids to have access to wasn't dirty pictures, but bomb instructions.

Feinstein's kids are child-bearing grownups themselves, so bomb-making instructions would pose little threat to them. But when Congressmen start bringing up their children, bad legislation usually follows. Senator Exon later introduced his Communications Decency Amendment, pleading with his colleagues to "protect the children."

Exon's legislation called for imprisonment and fines for electronic messages containing, not just obscene, but even "indecent" language. Confident in his righteousness, the Senator noted "All the people that have called in opposition to this bill are uninformed."

The bill passed the Senate, 84-16. It currently awaits action in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Leaping on the bandwagon, within weeks, Time magazine had put out a cover story called "Cyberporn. A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids..."


"I was trying to make it as a freelance writer and was basically starving. I needed a paycheck." Sixteen years later, this secretary-cum-reporter had been promoted to senior Science Editor of Time. "We have an unfair advantage," Time wrote. "His name is Philip Elmer-DeWitt"

"I am a staunch believer in free speech, but..." Elmer-DeWitt wrote in the introduction to his article. "...some of what people are looking at is very disturbing."

So was Time's journalism. Senator Exon is shown holding a picture from a pamphlet described as "a 'blue book' of filth..." They highlighted the word "deviant" in their pull out quote, saying "The biggest demand is not for hard-core sex pictures but for 'DEVIANT' material including pedophilia, bondage, sadomasochism and sex acts with various animals."

The only other pulled-out quote showed a photograph of anti-porn activist Catherine Mackinnon, under the caption "Anti-porn activist finds vindication in the fact that when oral sex is described as choking, demand for it doubles." The article also quoted Andrea Dworkin.

Time based their article on information from a study by a single undergraduate. Because the study also was published in the Georgetown Law Review, they felt it's credibility couldn't be challenged.

In fact, the student had no academic credentials to prepare the study. Many of its "contributors" had in fact never read it, and the study itself went unreviewed by anyone in the field. Even worse, the study focused mainly on adult bulletin boards, which restrict access to callers over 21. The images thus posed no threat to children at all.

The article's artwork nonetheless showed children being lured into alleys, and a naked man copulating with a computer. With a hot-button issue and a congressional tie-in, the media frenzy had reached a new height. But Time may have gone too far.


Within days, futurist Howard Rheingold contributed a commentary to the San Francisco Examiner. In response to the Time article, he began his article:

Would-be censors are using the big-lie technique to manipulate public opinion on the eve of far-reaching and intrusive legislation.

Gradually, stories denouncing the Time article began to appear. The study's figures were hopelessly flawed -- the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Cincinnati Enquirer all picked up the overstated nature of the study's claims. Larger articles soon followed in the Washington Post, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

The pendulum swung back, for the time leaving the responsibility for safeguarding our children from the internet where it has always been. Not with the congressmen, or the university researchers...but with the parents of the children themselves.

In the wake of frenzied, even exploitive coverage of so-called computer pornography and the danger it poses to our children, I'm haunted by the words of one particular parent.

"My wife and I have up until now, successfully attempted to raise our two sons with the best education, values, and hopes that can be offered."

That parent was Robert Thomas. The California BBS operator who is currently serving time in federal prison for running an adult bulletin board.