In the end, perhaps the work that I was most proud of at NBC marginalized me within the organization and was my undoing. I had done some of the first live Internet audio and video webcasts on MSNBC. I anchored live Web broadcasts from the political conventions in 2000 when such coverage was just beginning. I helped produce live interactive stories for Dateline where the audience could vote during commercial breaks on how a crime mystery or a hostage situation would turn out. I loved what we could do through the fusion of TV and the Internet. During one interactive broadcast, I reported the instant returns from audience surveys live in the studio, with different results for each time zone as Dateline was broadcast across the country. Sitting next to me, Stone Phillips (not a big fan of live TV) would interact with me in that chatty way anchors do. Stone decided that rather than react naturally to the returns from the different time zones, he would make a comment about how one hostage-negotiator cop character in the TV story reminded him of Dr. Phil. He honed the line to the point that he used the exact same words for each time zone. “I think the Dr. Phil line is working, don’t you?” he asked, as though this was his reporting-from-the-rooftops-of-London moment. “Sure, Stone.” I said. “It’s working great.”
Phillips was hardly alone in his reaction to the new technology that was changing television, and in the end we were both dumped by NBC anyway. When I got the word that I’d been axed, I was in the middle of two projects that employed new media technology. In the first, we went virtually undercover to investigate the so-called Nigerian scammers who troll for the gullible with (often grammatically questionable) hard-luck stories and bogus promises of hidden millions. We descended into the scammers’ world as a way of chasing them down and also illustrating how the Internet economy works. With search techniques and tracing strategies that reveal how Internet traffic is numerically coded, we chased a team of con artists to a hotel in Montreal, where we nailed them on hidden camera. With me playing the patsy, the story showed, in a very entertaining and interesting way, how the mechanics of the Internet worked to assist criminals. The second story unearthed someone who spammed people with porn e-mails. It was a form of direct-mail advertising that paid decent money if you had the right e-mail lists. The spammers didn’t get involved with the porn itself; they just traded in e-mail lists and hid behind their digital anonymity. We exposed one of these spammers and had him apologize on camera, without spectacle, to a Dallas housewife to whom he had sent hard-core e-mails. The story wasn’t merely about porn and spammers; it showed how electronic media gave rise to offshore shadow companies that traded e-mail lists on a small but very effective scale. The drama in the story was in seeing how we could penetrate spammers’ anonymity with savvy and tenacity while educating people about technology at the same time. It was admittedly a timid effort that suggested the barest glimpse of new media’s potential, but it was something.
Dateline started out interested but in the end concluded that “it looks like you are having too much fun here.” David Corvo asked us to go shoot interviews of random people morally outraged by pornographic e-mails to “make it clear who the bad guys are.” As might have been predicted, he was sending us back to find the emotional center after journalistic reality, once again, had botched the audition. I had long since cleaned out my office when the stories finally aired. Dateline eventually found the emotional center with To Catch a Predator, which had very little to do with Internet technology beyond 1990s-era chat rooms. What it did have was a supercharged sense of who the bad guys were (the upgrade for my spammer’s simple apology was having the exposed predators hauled off to jail on camera) and a superhero in the form of grim reaper Chris Hansen, who was now a star.
I moved on. My story for Wired on bloggers from the Iraq War landed me an appearance on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart bluntly asked me what it’s like to be at Dateline for nine years: “Does it begin to rot you from the inside?” The audience seemed not entirely convinced that this was a joke. They were actually interested in my answer, as though I were announcing the results of a medical study with wide implications for human health. I had to think about this rotting-from-the-inside business. I dodged the question, possibly because it was the one I had been asking myself for most of those nine years. But the answer is that I managed not to rot.
Life at the Media Lab has reminded me once again that technology is most exciting when it upsets the status quo. Big-screen TVs and downloadable episodes of Late Night with Conan O’Brien are merely more attempts to control the means of distribution, something GE has been doing since the invention of the light bulb. But exploding GPS backpacks represent an alien mind-set; they are part of the growing media insurgency that is redefining news, journalism, and civic life. This technological insurgency shouldn’t surprise us: after all, it’s wrapped up in language itself, which has long defied any attempt to commodify it. Technology, as it has done through the ages, is freeing communication, and this is good news for the news. A little empathy couldn’t hurt.