"You Don’t Understand Our Audience"
The most memorable reporting I’ve encountered on the conflict in Iraq was delivered in the form of confetti exploding out of a cardboard tube. I had just begun working at the MIT Media Lab in March 2006 when Alyssa Wright, a lab student, got me to participate in a project called “Cherry Blossoms.” I strapped on a backpack with a pair of vertical tubes sticking out of the top; they were connected to a detonation device linked to a Global Positioning System receiver. A microprocessor in the backpack contained a program that mapped the coördinates of the city of Baghdad onto those for the city of Cambridge; it also held a database of the locations of all the civilian deaths of 2005. If I went into a part of Cambridge that corresponded to a place in Iraq where civilians had died in a bombing, the detonator was triggered.
When the backpack exploded on a clear, crisp afternoon at the Media Lab, handfuls of confetti shot out of the cardboard tubes into the air, then fell slowly to earth. On each streamer of paper was written the name of an Iraqi civilian casualty. I had reported on the war (although not from Baghdad) since 2003 and was aware of persistent controversy over the numbers of Iraqi civilian dead as reported by the U.S. government and by other sources. But it wasn’t until the moment of this fake explosion that the scale and horrible suddenness of the slaughter in Baghdad became vivid and tangible to me. Alyssa described her project as an upgrade to traditional journalism. “The upgrade is empathy,” she said, with the severe humility that comes when you suspect you are on to something but are still uncertain you aren’t being ridiculous in some way.
The falling confetti transported me back three years to the early days of the war in Iraq, when the bombs intended to evoke “shock and awe” were descending on Baghdad. Most of the Western press had evacuated, but a small contingent remained to report on the crumbling Iraqi regime. In the New York offices of NBC News, one of my video stories was being screened. If it made it through the screening, it would be available for broadcast later that evening. Producer Geoff Stephens and I had done a phone interview with a reporter in Baghdad who was experiencing the bombing firsthand. We also had a series of still photos of life in the city. The only communication with Baghdad in those early days was by satellite phone. Still pictures were sent back over the few operating data links.
Our story arranged pictures of people coping with the bombing into a slide show, accompanied by the voice of Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter describing, over the phone, the harrowing experience of remaining in Baghdad. The outcome of the invasion was still in doubt. There was fear in the reporter’s voice and on the faces of the people in the pictures. The four-minute piece was meant to be the kind of package that would run at the end of an hour of war coverage. Such montages were often used as “enders,” to break up the segments of anchors talking live to field reporters at the White House or the Pentagon, or retired generals who were paid to stand on in-studio maps and provide analysis of what was happening. It was also understood that without commercials there would need to be taped pieces on standby in case an anchor needed to use the bathroom. Four minutes was just about right.
At the conclusion of the screening, there were a few suggestions for tightening here and clarification there. Finally, an NBC/GE executive responsible for “standards” shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter’s voice. “Doesn’t it seem like she has a point of view here?” he asked.
There was silence in the screening room. It made me want to twitch, until I spoke up. I was on to something but uncertain I wasn’t about to be handed my own head. “Point of view? What exactly do you mean by point of view?” I asked. “That war is bad? Is that the point of view that you are detecting here?”
The story never aired. Maybe it was overtaken by breaking news, or maybe some pundit-general went long, or maybe an anchor was able to control his or her bladder. On the other hand, perhaps it was never aired because it contradicted the story NBC was telling. At NBC that night, war was, in fact, not bad. My remark actually seemed to have made the point for the “standards” person. Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright’s “Cherry Blossoms.” Alyssa was right. Empathy was the upgrade. But in the early days of the war, NBC wasn’t looking for any upgrades.
“This is London”
When Edward R. Murrow calmly said those words into a broadcast microphone during the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II, he generated an analog signal that was amplified, sent through a transatlantic cable, and relayed to transmitters that delivered his voice into millions of homes. Broadcast technology itself delivered a world-changing cultural message to a nation well convinced by George Washington’s injunction to resist foreign “entanglements.” Hearing Murrow’s voice made Americans understand that Europe was close by, and so were its wars. Two years later, the United States entered World War II, and for a generation, broadcast technology would take Americans ever deeper into the battlefield, and even onto the surface of the moon. Communication technologies transformed America’s view of itself, its politics, and its culture.
One might have thought that the television industry, with its history of rapid adaptation to technological change, would have become a center of innovation for the next radical transformation in communication. It did not. Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs. Instead, the United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago. In a time of such broad technological change, how can this possibly be the case?
In the spring of 2005, after working in television news for 12 years, I was jettisoned from NBC News in one of the company’s downsizings. The work that I and others at Dateline NBC had done–to explore how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism–had come to naught. After years of timid experiments, NBC News tacitly declared that it wasn’t interested. The culmination of Dateline’s Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP formula is to post offers of sex with minors on the Internet and see whether anybody responds. Dateline’s notion of New Media was the technological equivalent of etching “For a good time call Sally” on a men’s room stall and waiting with cameras to see if anybody copied down the number.
Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.
In the years since my departure from network television, I have acquired a certain detachment about how an institution so central to American culture could shift so quickly to the margins. Going from being a correspondent at Dateline–a rich source of material for The Daily Show–to working at the MIT Media Lab, where most students have no interest in or even knowledge of traditional networks, was a shock. It has given me some hard-won wisdom about the future of journalism, but it is still a mystery to me why television news remains so dissatisfying, so superficial, and so irrelevant. Disappointed veterans like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather blame the moral failure of ratings-obsessed executives, but it’s not that simple. I can say with confidence that Murrow would be outraged not so much by the networks’ greed (Murrow was one of the first news personalities to hire a talent agent) as by the missed opportunity to use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens bent on preserving their freedom and their connections to the broader world.
I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.
Setting the Table for Law and Order
On the first Sunday after the attacks of September 11, pictures of the eventual head of NBC littered the streets and stuffed the garbage cans of New York City; Jeff Zucker was profiled that week in the New York Times Magazine. The piles of newspapers from the weekend were everywhere at 30 Rockefeller Center. Normally, employee talk would have been about how well or badly Zucker had made out in the Times. But the breezy profile was plainly irrelevant that week.
The next morning I was in the office of David Corvo, the newly installed executive producer of Dateline, when Zucker entered to announce that the network was going to resume the prime-time schedule for the first time since the attacks. The long stretch of commercial-free programming was expensive, and Zucker was certain about one thing: “We can’t sell ads around pictures of Ground Zero.” At the same time, he proceeded to explain that the restoration of the prime-time shows Friends, Will and Grace, and Frasier was a part of America’s return to normalcy, not a cash-flow decision. He instructed Corvo that a series of news specials would be scattered through the next few days, but as it was impossible to sell ads for them, scheduling would be a “day to day” proposition.
Normally I spent little time near NBC executives, but here I was at the center of power, and I felt slightly flushed at how much I coveted the sudden proximity. Something about Zucker’s physical presence and bluster made him seem like a toy action figure from The Simpsons or The Sopranos. I imagined that he could go back to his office and pull mysterious levers that opened the floodgates to pent-up advertisements and beam them to millions of households. Realistically, though, here was a man who had benefited from the timing of September 11 and also had the power to make it go away. In a cheap sort of way it was delirious to be in his presence.
At the moment Zucker blew in and interrupted, I had been in Corvo’s office to propose a series of stories about al-Qaeda, which was just emerging as a suspect in the attacks. While well known in security circles and among journalists who tried to cover international Islamist movements, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and a story line was still obscure in the early days after September 11. It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations. But Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the emotional center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. “Maybe,” said Zucker, “we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters.” He told Corvo he could make room in the prime-time lineup for firefighters, but then smiled at me and said, in effect, that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine.
With that, Zucker rushed back to his own office, many floors above Dateline’s humble altitude. My meeting with Corvo was basically over. He did ask me what I thought about Zucker’s idea for a reality show about firefighters. I told him that we would have to figure a way around the fact that most of the time very little actually happens in firehouses. He nodded and muttered something about seeking a lot of “back stories” to maintain an emotional narrative. A few weeks later, a half-dozen producers were assigned to find firehouses and produce long-form documentaries about America’s rediscovered heroes. Perhaps two of these programs ever aired; the whole project was shelved very soon after it started. Producers discovered that unlike September 11, most days featured no massive terrorist attacks that sent thousands of firefighters to their trucks and hundreds to tragic, heroic deaths. On most days nothing happened in firehouses whatsoever.
This was one in a series of lessons I learned about how television news had lost its most basic journalistic instincts in its search for the audience-driven sweet spot, the “emotional center” of the American people. Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.
It also explains why TV news seems so archaic next to the advertising and entertainment content on the same networks. Among the greatest frustrations of working in TV news over the past decade was to see that while advertisers and entertainment producers were permitted to do wildly risky things in pursuit of audiences, news producers rarely ventured out of a safety zone of crime, celebrity, and character-driven tragedy yarns.
Advertisers were aggressive in their use of new technologies long before network news divisions went anywhere near them. This is exactly the opposite of the trend in the 1960s and ’70s, when the news divisions were first adopters of breakthroughs in live satellite and video technology. But in the 1990s, advertisers were quick to use the Internet to seek information about consumers, exploiting the potential of communities that formed around products and brands. Throughout the time I was at the network, GE ads were all over NBC programs like Meet the Press and CNBC’s business shows, but they seemed never to appear on Dateline. (They also had far higher production values than the news programs and even some entertainment shows.) Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and N.W.A were already major cultural icons; grunge and hip-hop were the soundtrack for commercials at the moment networks were passing on stories about Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Tupac Shakur’s murder.
Meanwhile, on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney famously declared his own irrelevance by being disgusted that a spoiled Cobain could find so little to love about being a rock star that he would kill himself. Humor in commercials was hip–subtle, even, in its use of obscure pop-cultural references–but if there were any jokes at all in news stories, they were telegraphed, blunt visual gags, usually involving weathermen. That disjunction remains: at the precise moment that Apple cast John Hodgman and Justin Long as dead-on avatars of the PC and the Mac, news anchors on networks that ran those ads were introducing people to multibillion-dollar phenomena like MySpace and Facebook with the cringingly naïve attitude of “What will those nerds think of next?”
Entertainment programs often took on issues that would never fly on Dateline. On a Thursday night, ER could do a story line on the medically uninsured, but a night later, such a “downer policy story” was a much harder sell. In the time I was at NBC, you were more likely to hear federal agriculture policy discussed on The West Wing, or even on Jon Stewart, than you were to see it reported in any depth on Dateline.
Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime. Sunday was a little looser but still a hard sell for news that wasn’t obvious or close to the all-important emotional center. In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a story line on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-cancelled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on “protesters or something.” At the time, Dateline’s priority was another series of specials about the late Princess Diana. This blockbuster was going to blow the lid off the Diana affair and deliver the shocking revelation that the poor princess was in fact even more miserable being married to Prince Charles than we all suspected. Diana’s emotional center was coveted in prime time even though its relevance to anything going on in 2003 was surely out on some voyeuristic fringe.
To get airtime, not only did serious news have to audition against the travails of Diana or a new book by Dr. Phil, but it also had to satisfy bizarre conditions. In 2003, one of our producers obtained from a trial lawyer in Connecticut video footage of guards subduing a mentally ill prisoner. Guards themselves took the footage as part of a safety program to ensure that deadly force was avoided and abuses were documented for official review. We saw guards haul the prisoner down a greenish corridor, then heard hysterical screaming as the guard shooting the video dispassionately announced, “The prisoner is resisting.” For 90 seconds several guards pressed the inmate into a bunk. All that could be seen of him was his feet. By the end of the video the inmate was motionless. Asphyxiation would be the official cause of death.
This kind of gruesome video was rare. We also had footage of raw and moving interviews with this and another victim’s relatives. The story had the added relevance that one of the state prison officials had been hired as a consultant to the prison authority in Iraq as the Abu Ghraib debacle was unfolding. There didn’t seem to be much doubt about either the newsworthiness or the topicality of the story. Yet at the conclusion of the screening, the senior producer shook his head as though the story had missed the mark widely. “These inmates aren’t necessarily sympathetic to our audience,” he said. The fact that they had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was unimportant. Worse, he said that as he watched the video of the dying inmate, it didn’t seem as if anything was wrong.
“Except that the inmate died,” I offered.
“But that’s not what it looks like. All you can see is his feet.”
“With all those guards on top of him.”
“Sure, but he just looks like he’s being restrained.”
“But,” I pleaded, “the man died. That’s just a fact. The prison guards shot this footage, and I don’t think their idea was to get it on Dateline.”
“Look,” the producer said sharply, “in an era when most of our audience has seen the Rodney King video, where you can clearly see someone being beaten, this just doesn’t hold up.”
“Rodney King wasn’t a prisoner,” I appealed. “He didn’t die, and this mentally ill inmate is not auditioning to be the next Rodney King. These are the actual pictures of his death.”
“You don’t understand our audience.”
“I’m not trying to understand our audience,” I said. I was getting pretty heated at this point–always a bad idea. “I’m doing a story on the abuse of mentally ill inmates in Connecticut.”
“You don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head.
The story aired many months later, at less than its original length, between stories that apparently reflected a better understanding of the audience. During my time at Dateline, I did plenty of stories that led the broadcast and many full hours that were heavily promoted on the network. But few if any of my stories were more tragic, or more significant in news value, than this investigation into the Connecticut prison system.
Networks have so completely abandoned the mission of reporting the news that someone like entrepreneur Charles Ferguson, who sold an Internet software company to Microsoft in 1996 [and whose writing has appeared in this magazine; see “What’s Next for Google,” January 2005 –Ed.], can spend $2 million of his own money to make an utterly unadorned documentary about Iraq and see it become an indie hit. Ferguson’s No End in Sight simply lays out, without any emotional digressions or narrative froth, how the U.S. military missed the growing insurgency. The straightforward questions and answers posed by this film are so rare in network news today that they seem like an exotic, innovative form of cinema, although they’re techniques that belong to the Murrow era. In its way, Ferguson’s film is as devastating an indictment of network television as it is of the Bush administration.
Even when the networks do attempt to adopt new technology, they’re almost as misguided as when they don’t. As the nation geared up for the invasion of Iraq back in 2002 and 2003, NBC seemed little concerned with straightforward questions about policy, preparedness, and consequences. It was always, on some level, driven by the unstated theme of 9/11 payback, and by the search for the emotional center of the coming conflict. From the inside, NBC’s priority seemed to be finding–and making sure the cameras were aimed directly at–the September 11 firefighters of the coming Iraq invasion: the soldiers. To be certain, the story of the troops was newsworthy, but as subsequent events would reveal, focusing on it so single-mindedly obscured other important stories.
In 2002 and 2003, NBC news spent enormous amounts of time and money converting an army M88 tank recovery vehicle into an armored, mobile, motion-stabilized battlefield production studio. The so-called Bloom-mobile, named for NBC correspondent David Bloom, brought a local, Live-at-5, “This is London” quality to armed conflict. Using a microwave signal, the new vehicle beamed pictures of Bloom, who was embedded with the Third Infantry Division, from the Iraqi battlefield to an NBC crew a few miles behind, which in turn retransmitted to feed via satellite to New York, all in real time. While other embeds had to report battlefield activities, assemble a dispatch, and then transport it to a feed point at the rear of the troop formation, Bloom could file stories that were completely live and mostly clear. He became a compelling TV surrogate for all the soldiers, and demand for his “live shots” was constant.
But Bloom’s success in conveying to the viewing audience the visual (and emotional) experiences of the advancing troops also meant that he was tethered to his microwave transmitter and limited in his ability to get a bigger picture of the early fight. Tragically, Bloom died of a deep-vein blood clot. The expensive Bloom-mobile remote transmitter eventually came home and spent time ghoulishly on display outside 30 Rockefeller Center. It was used once or twice to cover hurricanes in the fall of 2004, to little success, and was eventually mothballed. The loss of one of NBC’s most talented journalists was folded into the larger emotional narrative of the war and became a way of conveying, by implication, NBC’s own casualty count in the war effort.
The focus on gadgetry meant once again that the deeper story about technology and the war was missed. Technology was revolutionizing war reporting by enabling combat soldiers to deliver their own dispatches from the field in real time. In 2004, I pitched Dateline on the story of how soldiers were creating their own digital networks and blogging their firsthand experiences of the war. The show passed. My story appeared in Wired a year later.
Six Sigma in the Newsroom
Perhaps the biggest change to the practice of journalism in the time I was at NBC was the absorption of the news division into the pervasive and all-consuming corporate culture of GE. GE had acquired NBC back in 1986, when it bought RCA. By 2003, GE’s managers and strategists were getting around to seeing whether the same tactics that made the production of turbine generators more efficient could improve the production of television news. This had some truly bizarre consequences. To say that this Dateline correspondent with the messy corner office greeted these internal corporate changes with self-destructive skepticism is probably an understatement.
Six Sigma–the methodology for the improvement of business processes that strives for 3.4 defects or fewer per million opportunities–was a somewhat mysterious symbol of management authority at every GE division. Six Sigma messages popped up on the screens of computers or in e-mail in-boxes every day. Six Sigma was out there, coming, unstoppable, like a comet or rural electrification. It was going to make everything better, and slowly it would claim employees in glazed-eyed conversions. Suddenly in the office down the hall a coworker would no longer laugh at the same old jokes. A grim smile suggested that he was on the lookout for snarky critics of the company. It was better to talk about the weather.
While Six Sigma’s goal-oriented blather and obsession with measuring everything was jarring, it was also weirdly familiar, inasmuch as it was strikingly reminiscent of my college Maoism I class. Mao seemed to be a good model for Jack Welch and his Six Sigma foot soldiers; Six Sigma’s “Champions” and “Black Belts” were Mao’s “Cadres” and “Squad Leaders.”
Finding such comparisons was how I kept from slipping into a coma during dozens of NBC employee training sessions where we were told not to march in political demonstrations of any kind, not to take gifts from anyone, and not to give gifts to anyone. At mandatory, hours-long “ethics training” meetings we would watch in-house videos that brought all the drama and depth of a driver’s-education film to stories of smiling, swaggering employees (bad) who bought cases of wine for business associates on their expense accounts, while the thoughtful, cautious employees (good) never picked up a check, but volunteered to stay at the Red Roof Inn in pursuit of “shareholder value.”
To me, the term “shareholder value” sounded like Mao’s “right path,” although this was not something I shared at the employee reëducation meetings. As funny as it seemed to me, the idea that GE was a multinational corporate front for Maoism was not a very widespread or popular view around NBC. It was best if any theory that didn’t come straight from the NBC employee manual (a Talmudic tome that largely contained rules for using the GE credit card, most of which boiled down to “Don’t”) remained private.
I did, however, point out to the corporate-integrity people unhelpful details about how NBC News was covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that our GE parent company stood to benefit from as a major defense contractor. I wondered aloud, in the presence of an integrity “team leader,” how we were to reconcile this larger-scale conflict with the admonitions about free dinners. “You make an interesting point I had not thought of before,” he told me. “But I don’t know how GE being a defense contractor is really relevant to the way we do our jobs here at NBC news.” Integrity, I guess, doesn’t scale.
Other members of the “GE family” had similar doubts about their relevance to the news division. In early 2002, our team was in Saudi Arabia covering regional reaction to September 11. We spent time on the streets and found considerable sympathy for Osama bin Laden among common citizens at the same time that the Saudi government expressed frustration that Americans seemed not to consider it an ally in the war on terror. We tracked down relatives of the September 11 hijackers, some of whom were deeply shocked and upset to learn what their family members had done. We wanted to speak with members of Osama bin Laden’s family about their errant son’s mission to bring down the Saudi government and attack the infidel West. We couldn’t reach the bin Ladens using ordinary means, and the royal family claimed that it had no real clout with the multibillion-dollar bin Laden construction giant that built mosques, roads, and other infrastructure all over the world.
But GE had long done business with the bin Ladens. In a misguided attempt at corporate synergy, I called GE headquarters in Fairfield, CT, from my hotel room in Riyadh. I inquired at the highest level to see whether, in the interest of bringing out all aspects of an important story for the American people, GE corporate officers might try to persuade the bin Ladens to speak with Dateline while we were in the kingdom. I didn’t really know what to expect, but within a few hours I received a call in my hotel room from a senior corporate communications officer who would only read a statement over the phone. It said something to the effect that GE had an important, long-standing, and valuable business relationship with the Bin Laden Group and saw no connection between that relationship and what Dateline was trying to do in Saudi Arabia. He wished us well. We spoke with no bin Laden family member on that trip.
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.
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