Home > coverstory > The dangerous idea: News belongs to everyone

Insight: Accessible media is changing the equation that shapes news and informs
society. Everyone is a journalist in the Age of Access. But for most news organizations,
collaboration with their audience is an irrational concept.
Hippasus of Metapontum was doomed. Pythagoras himself sentenced him to death for
revealing a secret that undermined the Greek way of thinking.
Pythagoras, of course, was noted for his famed theorum: the square of the hypotenuse of a
right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The theorum made the
universe understandable. Its ratios and proportions were keys to explaining mathematics,
science, music, nature and beauty in the Sixth Century BC.
The problem was that Pythagoras had it wrong. To the Greeks the number zero did not exist. A
ratio with zero in it defied nature, and thus the logic of the universe. But the math was
incontrovertible. The Pythagoreans ultimately figured it out, responding by forming a
brotherhood to deny the existence of zero, preserve the mathematical laws that made them
leaders in civilized society, and protect their charismatic leader.
Hippasus, a mathematician and member of the brotherhood, spilled the secret about irrational
numbers and an irrational universe. The Pythagoreans took him to sea, tossing him overboard
for exposing a self-serving theory with an unpopular truth.
Current conversations about news and its future recall the story of Hippasus and the
Pythagoreans, retold recently by journalist/mathematician Charles Seife in Zero: the Biography
of a Dangerous Idea. The closer an interconnected society moves toward creating its own
collective intelligence, the more the Brotherhood of News seeks to protect its values and exert
its control.
Consider the new book, “The News about The News: American Journalism in Peril” by
Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser. Downie and Kaiser make an
old argument convenient for a new time: they blame corporate ownership for undermining
good journalism and failing to inform society. They acknowledge that they come to their
perspective from “the privileged perch” of The Post. The view is predictably Pythagorean.
Consider the reaction by journalists to “Bias,” former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s
bestseller about the liberal bias at the major television networks. While Goldberg makes a
stronger case about the elitism of the media than systematic liberal bias, he reminds us of
Hippasus. Despite the public success of the book, the Brotherhood of News condemns “Bias”
as a dangerous idea and speaks of rowing Bernie out to sea.
Consider media ecologist Todd Gitlin’s passionate MSNBC.com essay on pervasive multi-media
and the excess of its coverage. Like the Pythagoreans, Gitlin contends society can’t
handle a newly irrational universe. The algorithms and equations of ubiquitous media confuse
the masses, hamper freedoms, and erode democracy. Just how did civilization survive the
discovery of zero?
A dangerous idea is upon us: News belongs to everyone. Everyone gets to participate. It
frequently leads to unexpected places.
Those who have owned and controlled news are understandably confused and threatened by a
collective intelligence that grows more formidable by bits and bytes. Just as zero changed the
equation shaping humanity’s vision of the universe, accessible media is changing the equation
that shapes news and informs society. Everyone is a journalist in the Age of Access. But for most
news organizations, collaboration with their audience is an irrational concept.
Pierre Levy, the French media scholar and scientist, takes a more enlightened view.
Levy foresees the emergence of collective intelligence from cyberspace. He predicts
that “universally distributed intelligence” will develop from an interconnected society
enabled by interactive media. It will it occur in real time, self-regulating, constantly
enhanced, and resulting in effective mobilization of skills. The connections enabled
by personal media will lead to the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals,
rather than a cult of communities and institutions.
Edmund Wilson, considered one the world’s greatest scientists, goes beyond Levy.
Wilson argues that the calculus is in place for the fundamental unity of knowledge.
The guiding tenets: No one knows everything. Everyone knows something. All
knowledge resides in humanity.
And Marshall McLuhan, the visionary who conceived The Global Village nearly fifty
years ago, foresaw transformation in world life and media in this century. McLuhan
envisioned an “acoustic space” surrounding individuals, enabling them to experience
a society defined by media. He wrote this prescient passage in the Eighties — before
the World Wide Web, personal computing, and the rise of global media companies:
“And you may be sure that emerging mediums such as the satellite, the computer,
the data base, teletext-videotext, and the international multi-carrier corporations …
will intensify the attack on the printed word as the ‘sole’ container of the public
mentality, without being aware of it of course. By the twenty-first century, most
printed matter will have been transferred to something like an ideographic
microfiche as only part of a number of data sources available …”
These visions are too real, too frightening, too humanistic for the skeptics and cynics
at today’s news organizations.
Fortunately, humanity has history on its side. The disruptive technology of the
Fifteenth Century, Gutenberg’s hand-operated wine press turned printing press,
ushered in an age of mass communication. It spread news and information to the
masses, leveling the playing field with the intellectuals and leaders who controlled it.
Political, religious, social and economic systems were inexorably changed.
Information technologies have continually led to the sharing of information
throughout society. The mechanized press, photography, motion pictures, radio,
television, computers, the Internet … all have spread and spawned news and
knowledge throughout The Global Village.
Today’s emerging technologies are unfolding at the speed of a click. They are
creating new media, new freedoms, new forces. Events have moved so quickly, and
our technologies have advanced so far, that we tend to overlook their role in making
everyone part of the story, and everyone a reporter.
It is a small matter, perhaps, but would the pairs skaters from Canada been awarded
an Olympic gold medal if 200 million people had not collectively witnessed a
judging injustice on television? Outside the view of the collective intelligence, the
injustices of ice-skating competitions were well known, broadly reported, and widely
Then there is the larger matter of how personal communication devices — including
digital cameras, computers and media components – make news, entertainment,
and media. Who can forget that ordinary citizens captured the searing images of
hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center? Or passengers with personal
cell phones provided the best reporting on what happened on the hijacked planes?
Today, almost anyone can own a printing press, or a media channel. And many
have the skill to be effective.
Eighteen-year-old Micheal Essany produces and hosts his own celebrity talk show
from his basement in Valparaiso, Indiana. The actor Kevin Bacon, a recent guest on
the show, says Essany is “better than Leno.”
From his apartment in Brooklyn, 29-year-old Ira Stoll takes on another media icon -The
New York Times. Each day Stoll critiques The Times with a point-by-point
takedown on his tidy website, Smartertimes.com. Stoll posts what he considers
incontrovertible evidence that the paper “has grown complacent, slow and
Last month, the Times’ new editor, Howell Raines, also complained about the
newspaper’s complacency as he shook up the national and features desks.
Coincidence? Is Stoll, a self-described “ordinary semi-intelligent guy,” an ideologue
on a mission? Or is he someone as informed as Times reporters and editors? Clues
can be found at Jim Romanesko’s Media News.
Romanesko’s newsletter is an indispensable read for journalists. Each day, he
compiles the real news behind the news. Recent links included stories about
composite characters in a New York Times Magazine story, a Washington Post
reporter buying up his own books, ABC’s Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel agonizing
over lack of respect, and speculation over who’ll play magazine diva Tina Brown in
the movie about her life.
Like Pythagoras, Downie and Kaiser have it wrong. Society is better informed than
ever. It’s just getting its news from a broader ranger of sources — increasingly from
people who don’t have a book, TV or movie deal.
The conversation about the condition of news leads back to the story of Pythagoras.
According to Seife, Pythagoras was a health-conscious cult leader who believed
indigestion caused all disease. He feared beans because they caused flatulence in
past, present and future lives. As his arrogance grew and his secret society crumbled,
his enemies set out to kill him. A mob set his house on fire. Members of the
brotherhood were slaughtered. Pythagoras fled. He may have escaped had he not
run into a bean field. There he stopped, declaring that he’d rather be killed than
cross the field. His pursuers obliged. They cut his throat.
Arrogance and eternal flatulence. Pythagoras died for behaviors and beliefs that put
him out of touch with the rest of the world.