Hard News by Russell Brown

77

Everybody's News

Many stories began on the day of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. This one is happier than most of them, and as complex as any.

On the dreadful morning when the planes struck their targets, the New York Times had a website. At 10.16am local time, it looked like this. And strangely, it looked basically like that for much of the day. While Times editorial staff gathered themselves for the next day's paper, the home page of the website offered what now seems like a strangely muted and institutional response.

At the same time, a guy called Dave Winer, who ran a technical blog – one of the first blogs – called Scripting News, was doing something different. He wasn’t in New York, he was in California, but he just dropped whatever he planned to do that day and started posting links and email messages in his blog as he got them.

You can still go and look at the page and read, from the bottom up, from the original bulletin, as news flows in and his human networks try to make sense of the tragedy. Readers emailed in eyewitness reports and even digital pictures from their Manhattan offices and apartments. Others found news and background in places where professional journalists might not have looked. Some just vented. A human dimension unfolded. It was everybody's news.

Amy Harmon's roundup for the Times of the internet response began thus the next day:

The major news Web sites were quickly overloaded. Many links to the not-so-major news Web sites stopped working. But more than news, what people all over the world craved in the wake of yesterday's terrorist attacks was connection to each other, and many of them found that most easily achieved by going online.

''The need to connect is intense,'' said Donna Hoffman, a professor who studies the Web and Web commerce at Vanderbilt University. ''While the network TV stations blather, the Internet carries the news and connects the masses in a true interactive sob.''

On that day, Winer also linked to a chilling public email by John Perry Barlow of the cyber-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. This attack, warned Barlow, could be the burning of the Reichstag - the event that the Nazi Party seized on to cement its power in the 1930s. He feared that online privacy and civil rights would wilt under the urge to prevent another attack.

I joined the Yahoo discussion group in which Barlow's warning was shared and, amid anger and argument, found other things that weren't reported by the mainstream press. Someone called Miss Flora posted the following:

Please be in prayer. My cousin was just called up and was told to pack up and be ready. He is heading out but they haven't told him where yet. He is in the army reserves. They said to prepare for the Middle East. His bags are packed. I am in shock. Not scared, just can't imagine my 40-some cousin going off. What's next?

As we now know, quite a lot came next.

Hard News, in its old form as a scripted radio bulletin, became part of the scramble for meaning. My September 14 script unexpectedly went viral. I had copies of it forwarded to me from all over the world and received hundreds of emails in reply. I responded, then shared the emails, then shared some more, the critical ones especially. On September 21 I wrote this:

A funny thing happened to Hard News last week. After I left the building, as usual, I tidied up my script and sent to it Scoop and to the Hard News mailing list so kindly hosted by bFM.

Feedback started rolling in within the hour. People thought it was "perfect", "fantastic stuff", "a bright beacon", "one of the best thought pieces about the week", that it "ruled" and that Hard News was "the last sane voice in the media".

A little later, some very different feedback began arriving. Hard News had been "trite" and "cheap", an "attempt to excuse the inexcusable, or explain the unexplainable" and would be seen by mainstream America as "an article from a spoiled, arrogant brat from a pissy little country in the middle of nowhere."

Clearly the bulletin had gone further than I expected. It was forwarded all over the place, posted on websites and debated in the forums at Salon.com. Mindful that, although I hadn't been speaking to American residents, I was reaching them anyway, I composed a follow-up on Sunday and then on Monday posted a digest of some of the 500-odd emails that have come in from a dozen countries.

In the end, I decided, it had been a small victory for the Internet. Not the Internet of dot-coms and e-commerce, but the Internet of email, of people in touch with each other. Some of the most interesting correspondence was with people who initially thought I was an asshole. Some, people, of course, continued to hold that view.

The saddest and most beautiful things I've read have come from New York residents. My heart really goes out to them. It's all very well to say the citadels of capitalism were stormed, but you're talking about people who feel like a part of them has been ripped out.

A friend of mine who lived there for eight years, called his friend who still did. She was alright, but, without the towers, she explained, "I don't know which way is South any more."

Another old mate wrote to me about the injustice of an attack on "a city of eight million peaceful freaks". A little romantic perhaps, but it's not a bad image to have about your city, is it?

Yet another friend - I'd forgotten quite how many people I knew in New York - wrote about the "infinite sadness" of the missing persons notices stuck up everywhere. You got to know the names and faces, he said. It makes me sad to even think about that.

If grief is a kind of influenza of the emotions, we out here on the perimeter have only a sniffle. But because it keeps arriving on my computer, I've had to think about it a lot, and it's been strange. Put it this way: I'm having more of those "I need a glass of wine" moments. Like everybody else, I'm nervous.

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For geeks, the Scripting News story has an interesting coda. As some of you may know, Dave Winer created the XML syndication formation that eventually became RSS. The New York Times talked to Winer after September 11 and the following year started offering an RSS feed to its online readers. It's generally acknowledged that it was the Times weighing in that tipped the balance and set RSS on the path to ubiquity.

But there was more than that. Winer and others like him had demonstrated that what we now know as "citizen" or "social" media could not only do the job of crisis reporting differently than established media organisations could -- it could, in some important ways, do it better.

The idea grew, in steps, from trauma. When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, on Boxing Day 2004,  the only working journalists in the area were themselves victims. But dozens of people with blogs or access to email did what Dave Winer did: used these tools to bear witness. The only moving pictures of the waves striking were captured on holiday handicams.

A new phrase got currency: citizen journalism. The effect was even more profound in July 2005, in London, a modern city where hundreds of thousands of people carried phones that doubled as digital cameras. By the end of the day of the terrorist bombings there, the BBC had received 30 mobile videos and more than 900 still images from members of the public. CNN screened mobile video for the first time that day. You could also say that was the day that Flickr cut through.

The effect was -- as I described it last year in a post about the the way news of the September Christchurch coursed through the networks -- one of many small pieces forming a bigger picture.

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We'd had Usenet for ever so long, but after that day, it seemed, we had journals, warbloggers, hate-bloggers, whole new platforms for conspiracy theories. Salam Pax, a gay, droll young architect from Baghdad became the "Baghdad blogger", a human face where the bombs were falling. New experts migrated from the blogosphere to the newspapers, which in turn eventually launched their own blogs. The news website "live blog" is now the standard format for covering a breaking story.

And, most disruptively of the prevailing order, the internet proved a good tool for disseminating stories -- valid, important stories -- that established media could not, or would not, report. Thanks to Wikileaks (and, to be specific, its receipt of one giant, multi-faceted leak) we now know more about the prosecution of the wars that followed September 11, 2001, than we would ever have thought possible.

We should now also have accepted that an opaque, cultish, hopelessly fractured group run by a highly motivated, capricious egotist might not be the best custodian of that information. Watching Julian Assange fire out a stream of tweets until dawn last week -- railing at his enemies, proclaiming his victim status, ordaining a preposterous "vote" on the release of many thousands of unredacted diplomatic cables -- was an unnerving experience. The lives of thousands of people, sources named in these cables, were in the hands of this man?

Blame for the unredacted cables getting into the wild (Der Spiegel has a reasonable summary of the train of events) must be shared around. The Guardian's David Leigh should not have shared a password -- any password -- in his book. But I'm inclined to believe Leigh when he says he was told the password would only last a matter of hours. What happened instead was that Assange effectively gave out a master password -- one that could not be withdrawn from the zipped file that others from his incoherently-managed organisation put beyond reach or recall. What, you have to ask, were they thinking?

Much of what I've described above would have happened anyway; the tools would have come, the trends were inexorable. But stories were set in motion that Tuesday morning in New York. They have changed our media landscape, in many ways for the better. They were also, indeed, as complex as any in their effects.

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We're presenting a Media7 special this week on the September 11 attacks and the different kinds of wars that have followed. The centre of the show will be a panel discussion with Nicky Hager, Jon Stephenson and David Beatson in the wake of Hager's fascinating new book, Other People's Wars (Keith is leading discussions of the book here and here.). I'll also task them for comment on the story I've outlined above.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow's recording (ie: Wednesday), we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ from 5.15pm and no later than 5.40. Click the little envelope icon to email and let me know you're attending.

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