I Really Hate Slashdot Sometimes

In 1997, ABC “reporter” Cokie Roberts blasted the Internet in a column she wrote with her husband, Steve. Among other things they complained about was that (surprise) the Internet didn’t allow for any mediation of views by responsible folks.

To us it [unmediated web communication] sounds like no more deliberation, no more consideration of an issue over a long period of time, no more balancing of regional and ethnic interests, no more protection of minority views.

Jon Katz, who at the time was writing for HotWired, turned around and ripped on the Roberts’s saying,

The column serves as a window into the dark and disconnected heart of Washington journalism, a culture that fiercely defends its own freedom but has mixed feelings about everyone else’s.

Katz was certainly right, but on the other hand a very popular web site Katz now writes for on occasion, Slashdot, seems intent on proving Cokie and Steve Roberts main contention correct.

This morning, for example, Slashdot posted an item titled Microsoft Fakes Citizen Letters of Support. As is typical with Slashdot, they post an excerpt from a user who first submitted the story to the site.

According to this Seattle Times article, Microsoft is sending letters to Utah’s Attorney General in support of the company, but with fake signatures of citizens (some of whom are dead!). The article says: “Letters sent in the last month are on personalized stationery using different wording, color and typefaces, details that distinguish Microsoft’s efforts from lobbying tactics that go on in politics every day. State law-enforcement officials became suspicious after noticing that the same sentences appear in the letters and that some return addresses appeared invalid.””

This is where I start to get really angry. If you actually go read the Seattle Times story, Lobbyists Tied to Microsoft Wrote Citizens’ Letters, it bears little resemblance to this summary.

Is Microsoft making up letters, signing dead people’s names to them, and then sending those letters to Utah’s Attorney General? Of course not.

What actually happened here was a number of pro-Microsoft lobbying groups conducted telephone surveys about the MS antitrust case. People who indicated they opposed the antitrust case were sent a package including an already prepared letter opposing the antitrust case that they could sign and mail to their state’s attorney general.

So where do the dead people come in? According to the Seattle Times,

Utah officials found that two prefab letters from Citizens Against Government Waste bore the typed names of dead people. Those names had been crossed out by family members who signed for them. And another letter came from “Tucson, Utah,” a city that doesn’t exist.

It is reprehensible for Slashdot to claim that, “Microsoft is sending letters to Utah’s Attorney General in support of the company, but with fake signatures of citizens (some of whom are dead!).”

This from the same site where editors and readers go ballistic because the film Swordfish‘s portrayal of hacking, and specifically computer encryption, was beyond laughable. But at least everyone seeing it new that Swordfish was a piece of fiction, while Slashdot continues to engage in such shoddy practices and pass them off as fact. And, of course, almost never makes any sort of corrections or retraction notices.

And personally I just don’t get it. Here’s my favorite story about Cokie Roberts: she’s a liar as well. Roberts was almost fired by ABC for an incident involving faked “live” coverage outside the White House. Basically, ABC ran footage showing Roberts reporting live from the White House, but in fact the footage was actually shot on a sound stage in front of a blue screen with the White House added in later.

That was extremely shoddy journalism, and at the moment Slashdot is not a whole lot better.

I guess I really don’t understand why anyone would want to put out such a shoddy product. I mean, I understand why traditional news agencies often get burned — incredible deadline and economic pressures — but I don’t see how independent web sites are doing anybody a favor by repeating the same mistakes of traditional media.

Why Katz Gets Flamed

PopPolitics.Com has a profile of Jon Katz which, among other things, tries to figure out why people on Slashdot flame him so much. The answer, of course, is inadvertently contained in Julia Lipman’s piece.

1. Lipman writes,

He’s maligned and even dissed by members of his own constituency who fail to recognize him for what he is: a leader of one of the important social movements of the Internet Age.

I suspect if Katz doesn’t think of himself as any sort of leader of a social movement, but he comes across as a self-appointed spokesman for what he thinks is some broad “geek” social group. Thanks, but no thanks.

2. Lipman writes,

But most of the flames his stories receive aren’t just about the stories; they’re about him. Katz is a big-name writer using his own name at a place where most of the monikers are more along the lines of “Hemos” and “CmdrTaco.” He’s writing about technology from the perspective of a journalist. Some of what makes Katz distrust big media might make Slashdot readers distrust Katz.

Give me a break. First, I know I don’t and I doubt most other Slashdot readers think of Katz as a “big name” writer. Maybe Lipman’s impressed by his resume, but I’m not.

But more importantly, the problem is that he writes like someone who cut his teeth writing for major magazines. His analyses always tend to be mind-numbingly superficial.

Just compare Katz’s review of several books about the Internet including Carl Sunstein’s Republic.Com to Matthew Gaylor’s review, both of which were published on Slashdot this month.

Katz’s flowery prose would probably be adored by fans of the New York Review of Books but for the life of me I have no idea what Katz means when he writes things like, “Net culture is not known for carefully dissecting its own implications” or “…a new strain of rationalist political sensibility is emerging from this tech generation” and especially thing like, “As John Raulston Saul wrote, this is a brilliant, successful and creative culture, but an Unconscious Civilization in many ways, unaware of the political realities spawned by the very technology they are making and using, or by the daunting challenges the unchecked rise of corporatism poses. Sometimes the fallout can be serious. As a consequence, it created an Unconscious Revolution.”

For Katz, it’s all about the platitudes. For Gaylor, on the other hand, even if you aren’t a right wing nut like myself the review at least gives you some idea of what Sunstein actually said in his book rather than Katz’s vague description that, “Unplanned, unprogrammed encounters are central to democracy” without ever mentioning that what Sunstein is really calling for is more state control over free spech (ironic for someone who writes for the Freedom Forum, isn’t it?)

Matthew Gaylor Slices and Dices Cass Sunstein

Jon Katz loved the book, but Matt Gaylor does an excellent job of outright slamming Cass Sunstein’s book, Republic.Com for Slashdot.

One of the most bizarre ideas that Sunstein advocates — and this is the sort of thing that could only come from an academic — is a sort of equal time provision for web sites. A site that is say anti-gun control would be required by law to link to a pro-gun control site. Gaylor quotes Sunstein as saying,

We might easily imagine a situation in which textual references to organizations or institutions are hyperlinks, so that if, for example, a conservative magazine such as the National Review refers to the World Wildlife Fund or Environmental Defence, it also allows readers instant access to their sites. …To the extent that sites do not do this, voluntary self regulation through cooperative agreements might do the job. If these routes do not work, it would be worthwhile considering content-neutral regulation, designed to ensure more in the way of both links and hyperlinks.

Does this mean if the NAACP produces a report on online hate groups that it has to link to each group? If a gay/lesbian site writes and article about Fred Phelps, do they have to links to GodHatesFags.Com?

What an unbelievably stupid idea (and, by the way, unconstitutional).

Does the Internet Lead to a Narrowing Views?

Slashdot’s Jon Katz wrote an article about the long term social and historical implications of the Internet. Katz seems to agree with University of Chicago Law Professor Carl Sunstein’s this in his book, republic.com, which Katz summarizes as claiming,

In his new book republic.com University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein warns that the emerging Net culture — busy creating personalized “me” media — threatens to undermine one of the basic tenets of democracy — the willingness of people with diverse viewpoints to speak to and hear one another.

The Net is beginning to endanger a democratic society, Sunstein fears, with its fragmentation, advanced moderation and filtering systems. What makes free expression work, Sunstein asks? His answer: exposure to materials that people might not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unprogrammed encounters are central to democracy. A culture that offers increasingly customized speech control preferences enables people to eliminate from their screens and minds anything they might not want to see or hear or might disagree with.

This is a pretty generic claim that academics in communications have been making for years about the effect of technology on media, but it is correct? I don’t see any evidence for it.

In fact, web media is far more diverse than anything the traditional media has ever produced. This is especially the case for international events. Neither the local newspaper nor the national television broadcasts have said anything, for example, about the ongoing controversy in Senegal about whether to try former president of Chad, Hissene Habre, for war crimes (which is especially odd since he had the support of the U.S. government while he was ordering kidnappings, murders and torture in Chad).

Yet on the Internet not only can you find plenty of coverage of such an event, but you usually find coverage from numerous viewpoints. You’re not stuck with the bland Associated Press or Reuters version of events.

If people choose to stick with homogenized, narrow reporting, I suspect it’s because they’re so used to having the traditional media deliver news in that manner rather than something inherent in the web.

The Web and Illiteracy — Putting the Cart Before the Horse

What was Jon Katz thinking when he wrote this little ditty,

The Net and the Web have revolutionized certain areas like academic and scientific research. But they’ve done little to eradicate illiteracy or poverty, or alter education for most students.

I think it’s the other way around — the web presupposes literacy. Saying the web hasn’t helped eradicate illiteracy is a lot like saying that television hasn’t helped eradicate blindness.

And illiteracy is going to be the ultimate source of the over-hyped “digital divide.” Channel surfing past CNN the other day they had the mayor of Washington, DC, begging for more government funds. The voice-over claimed that a survey of DC residents indicated that up to 40 percent of them were functionally illiterate to the point where they would not be able to read and understand a classified ad for a job.

The web isn’t going to be able to touch that level of mismanagement except indirectly.

Jon Katz and Literary Detective Work

My wife says I shouldn’t be, but I am always shocked at how credulous people will act toward anyone who simply writes a book and labels himself an expert. Case in point is a Slashdot book review by Jon Katz of Don Foster’s Author Unknown.

Foster claims that, “no two individuals write exactly the same way, using the same words in the same combinations, or with the same patterns of spelling and punctuation,” and so by comparing an writing sample whose authorship is unknown or questioned with enough known writing samples, that he can infer who the author of the passage is.

I am extremely skeptical of Foster’s claims. My skepticism is only increased by the fact that numerous online reviews of Foster’s book note that he spends little time discussing exactly how he goes about comparing written passages to each other.

Before I’d buy into Foster’s claims, I’d like to see a series of double blind tests which involve Foster matching unknown samples with their authors. This could be easily accomplished by using say long forgotten novels from the 19th century and correspondence by their authors in a genre that is relatively similar in form and style.

This sort of technique has been abused in the past. In 1991 two National Institutes of Health researchers, Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, who were supposed to be looking for fraud in the biomedical field decided to turn their attention to historical biography. They created a computer program which compared Stephen B. Oates’ Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myth with a 1950s-era Lincoln biography by Benjamin Thomas.

The charges created an initially sensational reaction, but when the details filtered out they proved groundless. Here, for example, is one of the strongest pieces of evidence of Oates’ plagiarism.

I strongly suspect that this sort of detective work is right in line with other popular but suspect methods such as the so-called lie detector test.