bioephemera

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I perversely love attending conferences where traditional journalists complain that bloggers are evil. :) Yesterday I heard that line again (in jest, relax) at a great discussion about changing media practices and the legal implications of various forms of content reuse, sponsored by the Online Media Legal Network. But the focus was a little bit different: are “new media” practices really that new? Historians know that almost two centuries ago, rival newspapers reprinted one another’s content freely – often with snarky commentary, and nary a licensing fee or permission. Fact-checking fell by the wayside and many editors closed their eyes to egregious hoaxes (man-bats on the moon, for example), as long as the pennies kept coming in.

A recent study by Jonathan Stray of the Nieman Journalism Lab estimated that only 11% of news stories on Google and China included new content:

Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value. Only seven stories (six percent) were primarily based on original reporting. These were produced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Tech News World, Bloomberg, Xinhua (China), and the Global Times (China).

The Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton noted that this “cult of rewriting” is grossly inefficient: what added value do journalists bring to the table when all they’re doing is rewriting one another’s work? Such journalists are at best aggregators and curators, much like bloggers: only a few traditional media hubs have the resources to do original reporting, and they often end up coming back to blogs as sources. (On a tangent: you should know that in another panel, the speakers emphatically distinguished the confidential source from the anonymous blogger or commenter: bloggers and commenters do not get the same kind of protection.) The result is a constant reshuffling and repackaging of content, with very few assurances that it’s accurate – just as in 19th century New York.

Benton’s talk was one of the rare times I’ve seen the linkage between the newsmen’s collage-media of yesteryear and the web-based remix media of today drawn so explicitly (and effectively). But I recently finished a delightful non-fiction book by Matthew Goodman which beautifully illustrates the parallels between blogging and the eighteenth-century broadside battles:The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York

Goodman tells the story of a hoax perpetrated by the editors of New York’s Sun in 1835. As a struggling penny newspaper targeted at the masses, the Sun needed readers – and how better to get them than to exploit the fascination of science?

Not since ancient Greece had the power of science so captured the popular imagination; never had the possibilities it offered seemed so limitless. . . no more than six months earlier, the Sun had carried on its front page a large drawing of the creatures – “animalcules,” they were called – that could be seen in a single drop of water by means of the hydro-oxygen microscope then on exhibit at the American Museum. The accompanying article reported that the size of the animals “surpasses the conception of the human mind”; ten thousand members of a single species were, together, no larger than a single grain of sand. Yet the animals had distinct, even complex bodies, complete with what looked like tiny claws and wings and antennae. . . .if these tiny wonders could be detected in a single drop of water, then why should it not also be possible that the hydo-oxygen microscope, in combination with a powerful new telescope, might discover equally astonishing creatures on the earth’s closest neighbor?

As Goodman’s title suggests, the Sun concocted a tale of implausible and exotic species (winged humanoid “man-bats”, unicorns, moon-deer, etc.) inhabiting the Moon, claiming it was a series of excerpts taken from a Scottish science journal. While some readers probably never bought the hoax, many did – especially since the stories were cunningly spiked with scientific jargon and equations and represented as a first-hand account of well-known astronomer John Herschel’s observatory on the Cape of Good Hope. Yale’s students hotly debated the veracity of the story, and several Yale professors – self appointed fact-checkers – came down to New York one day, demanding to see the original copy of the source journal. The moon tales were taken up and reprinted by the Sun’s competitors, some with skeptical, even vitriolic, editorial commentary – but many just were desperately eager to ride the coattails of the hottest story of the day.

In such a bizarre tale, it is neither surprising nor unwelcome to also encounter Edgar Allan Poe (green with envy that the Sun’s moon-tales outstripped his own moon-centric fantasy, Hans Phaal, in popularity), P.T. Barnum (fresh off his exploitative exhibition of an elderly African-American woman he claimed was George Washington’s nanny), and the Mechanical Turk. At times, Goodman’s story has the steampunky, complicated texture of a Neal Stephenson novel, where familiar historical figures pop up in situations that seem outrageous largely because we’ve forgotten what it was like to live in a pre-digital world. The Sun’s tale was eventually revealed as complete moonshine – but just as in the blogosphere each April 1, the hoax is received with far more respect for its inventiveness and novelty than outrage. New York didn’t mind being hoaxed so entertainingly.

Goodman’s story is a charming slice of the complex history and spirit of New York, a snapshot of a time when science was fascinating the general public as never before, and a wonderful source of perspective on our own rumor-ridden blogosphere. (Today, the Sun’s stories would be making the rounds via email, accompanied by several badly Photoshopped man-bats, and have their very own Snopes page.) It’s astonishing how little the public appetite for sensationalism has changed (nor the cutthroat world of media – I lost count of the number of newspapers that folded over the course of Goodman’s book, except that they were usually the papers that tried to print more politically relevant, literate content).

All of this was in my mind at yesterday’s digital journalism panels: the more things change, the more they stay the same. You can always make analogies to the pre-print era as well, but my point is not that any one era is a perfect model. It’s that we’ve dealt with unreliability, aggregation, loss of authority, and the other challenges of the internet age before: we should not be so entranced by our own innovations that we lose sight of that.

Illustration: lithograph of the “ruby amphitheater” for the New York Sun, August 28, 1835.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 10, 2010

    And WHISKY!!!!!!!!!

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    April 10, 2010

    Oh come on. Those newspaper editors in 1835 were totally trashed on Jameson, CPP. Bloggers don’t have a corner on that!

  3. #3 albion tourgee
    April 10, 2010

    Terrific post Jessica. In the late eighteenth century, many towns in America had newspapers, typically 4 pages with lots of small print; they used whatever type they could scrape together. They were carried ***free*** by the postal service, one of Ben Franklin’s great ideas. And as you say they freely reprinted each others stories without alot of fact-checking, and no concern at all about “rights management”. But the quality was great. For example, many American newspapers reprinted material like The Federalist Papers, and Richard Price’s Reflections on the Importance of the American Revolution in full, serialized over several issues. Cato’s Letters (an important 18th century British political work) was another favorite reprint. News spread fast; at the same time, the papers had alot of local content, most of it submitted pseudonymously. My actual favorite newspaper title from this period was called The Prisoner of Hope, published in New York in 1800 as part of the resistance to the Sedition Act of 1798. Yes it was alot like the blogosphere of today, but there wasn’t so much entrenched “respectable” media to sniff at this outpouring of literate and interesting material. I guess Ben Franklin would have been considered “establishment” but he didn’t go around looking down his nose at the little start-up newspapers that sprang up all over. But then again, the America of the late 1700′s was much more literate than today, what with print being one of the few sources of entertainment, and much less religious, so it was easier on all those free thinkers.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    April 11, 2010

    News spread fast; at the same time, the papers had alot of local content, most of it submitted pseudonymously.

    Gasp! Pseudonyms? Quick, get the fainting couch.

    Fantastic analysis, BioE. I had not known much of this history. Thanks for feeding my brain.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 11, 2010

    I’m buying an eyeshade!

  6. #6 BackStoryProducer
    April 13, 2010

    Nice post, Jessica. Your readers might be interested in a recent episode of BackStory, the public radio show I produce, in which we set out to trace the development of American media values from the colonial period to the present. We even had an interview with Mr. Man Bat, himself, Matthew Goodman! http://tinyurl.com/y24pdr7

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