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Netropolis

Date: Spring 1999.

Location: The USA

The update: At the dawn of the 21st century, genuine Year 2000 bug concerns remain curiously underreported. Instead, traditional media outlets step up their news-lite coverage of Y2Kmart opportunists and the ’50s-style bomb shelter packrats these entrepreneurs inevitably attract.

Meanwhile, pro-Web security types brave the storm of the Melissa virus with the expected "We got our man!" self-congratulations.

Almost simultaneously, privacy watchdogs attempt to draw attention to a recently uncovered Windows 98 quirk that allowed Microsoft to secretly collect personal information from thousands of unsuspecting users.

Their cries fall on mostly deaf ears.

And now, the media christens this god-awful mess in Kosovo as the first "Internet war," hinting that the Web’s independent nature can shine a revelatory light on the complex Balkan crisis … without really saying what that revelation might be.

OK, so maybe the truth isn’t out there.

Or at least no news source with a salable target audience is paying attention long enough to tell us what it is. With a crisis as complicated and hard to understand as Kosovo, that’s a crime in itself.

The situation today is enough to make me nostalgic for 1940s toe-the-party-line newsreels. Was commercial news reporting always as unchallenging and simpleminded as it is today? Wasn’t there a time when network television coverage contained at least a semblance of thoughtful analysis, balance and investigative depth?

I’m beginning to feel today’s mainstream news outlets are working their way toward irrelevance. Yes, the notion of two or three trusted voices of authority simultaneously delivering the nation’s truth from TV and radio speakers across the land just doesn’t exist anymore.

Maybe it never did.

In his recent commentary on American news coverage of Kosovo, syndicated columnist and author Norman Solomon writes, "When the ‘free press’ marches off to war, the reflexive deference to official sources – with their nonstop briefings, interviews and behind-the-scenes backgrounders – produces an overwhelming flood of propaganda."

How refreshingly incisive. But as a Detroiter, how can you easily find this enlightening commentary?

Online, of course. Solomon’s column, which appears in a selection of out-of-state newspapers, can be found regularly at www.fair.org/media-beat.

If you really want to learn what’s happening in the world today, you have to decide what’s important to you and then work to find it. You can’t just skim the morning paper or watch CNN "Headline News."

That’s why the Web is the future of news. Online, "all the news that’s fit to print" comes from far beyond the realm of the same tired news outlets. In fact, you’re sure to find hundreds of sources. Or more. Just pick the ones you like and try ’em on for size.

The reason we have so much choice is the Web’s much-touted ease of use and inexpensive distribution. Not beholden to the massive economics of network TV or national cable channels, Web-only news providers (such as the Institute for Global Communications at www.igc.org) can bypass the mainstream media’s commercial gatekeepers.

To be sure, print alternative news sources have existed for years. But now, the Web is putting them at your fingertips 24 hours a day. Progressives no longer need wait for the next issue of Mother Jones (www.motherjones. com) or The Nation (www.thenation.com) to arrive in the mail – many of the articles from the latest issue are available on the Net, along with Web-exclusive content.

But the real trick is, conservatives can do the same thing (check out columns from Pat Buchanan and Ollie North on The Informed Electorate page at rampages.onramp.net/~rampage/). So can moderates. And radicals too.

When it comes to news, the only real truth may be the truth that fits our own ethics, values and beliefs. Much like the dynamic in Kosovo, your own personal truth is something different depending on which side you’re on.

With so many alternative sources of information available, the era of niche market news has arguably begun. And like the do-it-yourself model that has flourished on the Web for everything from investing to buying books to researching junior’s science project, online DIY news gathering will undoubtedly change the way we learn about the day’s current events.

Imagine: If you’re not reading the answers you want from one source, another point of view is just a click away.

Of course, like any animal in its death throes, the existing media structure may fight for survival to its last breath. It’ll report things such as, "The Web is as dangerous as the wild, wild West." Or calmly remind us that "The Web is the birthplace of gossip, rumors and hoaxes." They’ll warn us by saying, "There’s no real accountability online" and "You just can’t trust the Net."

The underlying message: "Trust us instead."

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t misinformation online. Of course there is. But one person’s lie is another’s truth. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, at least you can move on. Online, there’s always more.

As the crisis in Kosovo proves, there are at least two sides to every story. Make up your own mind.

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