Home' Technology Review : January February 2008 Contents ESSAY
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW JANUARY/ FEBRUARY
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 "stan-
dards" person. Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the nar-
rative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in
memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright's "Cherry Blos-
soms." 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 broad-
cast 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 tech-
nology 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 trans-
formed 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 trans-
formation 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 a airs. 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 com-
pany'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 Date-
line's Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of
programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP
formula is to post o ers 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 cam-
eras 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 pas-
sive 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 pas-
sive. 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 maintain-
ing 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 tra-
ditional 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 a air 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 stu ed
the garbage cans of New York City; Je Zucker was profiled
that week in the New York Times Magazine. The piles of news-
papers from the weekend were everywhere at 30 Rockefeller
Center. Normally, employee talk would have been about how
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