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I Spit on Walter Cronkite, March 30th, 1997 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

the soapbox @ benturner.com
archived soapbox: March 30th, 1997
"I Spit on Walter Cronkite" [permalink]
    keywords: journalism, libel, Walter Cronkite, world wide web, internet, spitting
    soapbox #: 78
    written: March 30th, 1997
    words: 2238

"I Spit on Walter Cronkite", an Essay

It's early Thursday morning (that is, 1 AM) and I'm just now writing the Soapbox article for this week. No comments, please -- I have a jaded and apathetic outer demeanor to uphold to everyone who reads this regularly. Thank you.

I'll be quoting periodically from an interview with Walter Cronkite I read at The Site. Mr. Cronkite is being interviewed by someone named "Soledad".

I have taken the quotations and turned them into a volley between what Mr. Cronkite said and what I think about it.

Soledad: So, when you look at the Internet as our next big frontier, there are lots of problems with having a frontier because there are no rules to some extent. You've had experiences online that have not been pleasant.

Cronkite: Very unpleasant, and it's a matter that I'm on the cusp of mounting a crusade about. I don't want to be a crusader, but on the other hand I feel very strongly about the matter.

Cronkite: Responsibility on the Internet. What happened to me was a character, a young man, 28 or so years old, I understand, since he's been identified only recently. I now know who he is and what he is. He's apparently a quite bright website designer. But he put on the Internet a two or three page -- very slickly produced, naturally -- publication, [it] looked like it was right out of a slick magazine. And a picture of me on it, then a caricature of me on it. Purporting to report on an incident at a restaurant at Disney World that was really scurrilous and libelous in all of it. It was just incredible. About his being at this restaurant with his wife, and I was sitting an adjoining table with friends -- drinking it up with friends allegedly. And I was apparently loaded, he came over and asked for my autograph, and I [let loose] a string of invectives. I can do my share of using profanity. But I've never thought of stringing together as many words he strung together and spelled out, of course, that being the Internet. You don't have any asterisks, no nicety of presentation on the Internet among this type of individual.

The amusement only just begins. I think I visited the site in question a long time ago when it was still relatively unknown. It had just won some award -- Cool Site of the Day maybe, back when Glenn Davis was still there. Anyway, I read through most of the site, but didn't find it that amusing, nor did I think it was serious at all.

I also didn't think it was "slick". It seemed like just another page on the Web, fit with big paragraphs of text and large images that didn't really flow with the page well. One wonders what sorts of "slick [magazines]" Mr. Cronkite reads.

Do you begin to notice Cronkite's cluelessness when it comes to the Internet and the Web? Do you see where I'm heading with this? Do you understand the implications of such a dignified journalist spouting ignorance with such confidence?

Cronkite: ... I haven't spit since I was a small boy. That I know of. And here I'm accused of all this. When I found out I was upset, obviously, when I stumbled on this on the Internet. And others began telling me about it. I was very upset about it.

"That I know of"? Are we beginning to forget the obvious?

Mr. Cronkite claims he was "accused" of treating a dinner patron rudely. Why didn't it occur to him immediately that the page was a joke?

Soledad: What can you do?

Cronkite: Well, that's exactly it. I found that there was no way, I was told by somebody who was allegedly in the know at America Online, AOL. That there was no way to trace this anonymous material. It wasn't anonymous, it had an alleged byline which turned out to be phony. And it mentioned his home town, a small town in Wisconsin allegedly. I looked that up, there wasn't any such town in the US postal guide in Wisconsin. Clearly, the whole thing was shadow business. And I was told there's no way to trace it. No way to trace it whatsoever. So I gave up. I mean, I didn't hire a private detective to try to find out who it was. It wasn't that important at the time, although I was very upset. Only recently did an AP man identify this fellow, and, for the first time, I know who he is, and where he is, and what he is. But the problem this opens up for me is that the Internet can be used by anybody -- the most irresponsible individual -- anybody can write anything about anyone. About you -- they could tell the story of Soledad's previous life which has nothing to do with your previous life whatsoever. Make up an entire story about where you came from, who you are, what your habits are, what you're up to in your late hours. I mean terrible stuff! They can make it up, put it on the Internet and totally anonymously.

Shadow business? When I visited the site, I didn't notice anything spooky. One wonders if the offender just used an online handle or something as an account name, and Mr. Cronkite in his newbieness thought it was an attempt to hide any personal details of the offender's life. [After further research (read the discussion board at thesite.com, which has a link further below), it turns out I was right! Mr. Cronkite thought Mr. Hughes's online handle was an attempt at a fake name!] If I recall correctly, didn't the offender have pictures of himself on his site?

Further evidence of Cronkite's ignorance of the 'Net surfaced when he mentioned he asked someone at AOL for assistance, and that person told him there was no way to trace the offender down! What kind of nonsense is that? It's damn near impossible to create an untraceable account, unless you're a hacker of sorts. And I seriously doubt any hacker would care enough to go through that much trouble to put up a spoof of Mr. Cronkite.

Watch out, everyone's out to get you!

At least Cronkite tapped into one thing: the ability to post whatever you want on the 'Net anonymously. Isn't it nice? Instead of gathering together the funding to bash a software product in a small paper 'zine, I can post it on Usenet or put it on my page. Isn't that a great thing? You get points for that one.

Cronkite: The point is, there's no responsibility -- I'm going to answer that because I knew you'd ask -- there's, the point is there is no responsibility here. In other words they are not responsible for their act. With any other public communications media -- print, magazines, newspapers, books, broadcasting on your program here. You are responsible. A person whom you malign unreasonably, irrationally and without proper legal protection can sue you for libel and slander. There is an opportunity of recourse for that individual. There is none on the Internet. Now then so, as soon as I say that out loud, as I did two or three weeks ago. Not the responsible defenders of free press and free speech like myself -- and I will go to the barricades any time on a free speech, free press issue, and I've got the record I think to prove that one -- but the nut free speech people who think the Internet is somehow or another open sesame for any of them to use in any way they care to without signing the document, without any responsibility, they're accusing me of trying to sponsor censorship on the Internet. Let me make this statement, as President Nixon would say, let me make this perfectly clear, I believe that if, in order to gain responsibility on the Internet, that I would advocate, that is, you have to sign with your real name to the material you've got to give an address for that material so people can respond to you, and particularly in the legal sense in the case of alleged libel or slander. ... You can't get by with [slander] in any other form of publication.

There is no anonymity on this site, Mr. Cronkite. My name is indeed Ben Turner and I am indeed trashing your interview. I would sign my name on the document, but I don't think it's worth my time (or safety) to scan a piece of paper with my signature on it and then make it into an image. I give you my word that I, Ben Turner, think your views of the 'Net are hilariously inaccurate.

Again, the whole story about Mr. Cronkite spitting into this guy's food was intended as a joke and could not be interpreted as anything different. The humor, you see, is that a very distinguished man whom we've all heard about at some point suddenly acts impulsively and crudely. We know it's a made-up story.

Soledad: How much time do you spend surfing the Web?

Cronkite: Not much surfing the Web. I use the Web for research, for news information and so forth. Information resources. Absolutely marvelous.

Hint, kids. If anyone says they use the Internet strictly for research and getting news, you know they're newbies. A man who admits to not spending much time on the Web comes right back and postulates that he encountered a novice hacker who wanted nothing but to slander his good name in a medium he knew he could get away on.

Cronkite: I'm sure that there must be chat rooms somewhere which have something behind them. The ones I tapped into reflected a kind of a mass idiocy that I can't believe exists out there.

The last laugh. Mr. Cronkite's time is too good to spend talking to those of lesser intelligence. He did not take the time to understand that, just like in real life, there are places you go for intelligent conversation and places you just go to have fun. Mr. Cronkite, in all his years of journalism, seemingly has no concept of "other people", people who do not drone on nostalgically about past presidents and who do not name-drop in order to look good.

Oh well -- I find comfort in knowing the idiocy I indulge in is responding to a post about intellectual property laws, discussing the latest X-Files news, watching a friend's site go up, and trading messages with other Robin Hood fanatics.

Get off the 'Net if you don't like it. Pure and simple. Oh, you have to use it? Then learn to use it and admit that you're the person who's in a strange environment this time. Don't bother the rest of us with your wild assumptions and ridiculous assertions.

Why did I spend a whole Soapbox talking about this? Well, I fear this is symbolic of an ignorance which I hoped would have burned off by now. An ignorance of the 'Net. What a more prominent example than a distinguished journalist voicing his old-fashioned dismay at problems which don't exist on the 'Net. What with the media coverage of Heaven's Gate causing web designers' parents to call them and ask if they're suicidal too and seeing cases of child kidnapping through meetings on the 'Net, we are being bombarded with stupidity. When will the media understand that the Internet is made up of people, meaning the 'Net works in exactly the same damn way real life does? When will the media take the time to do a little research before it infers that all Internet users are bald pederasts who log in as the opposite sex and eat Cheetos all day?

The crime being committed here is not on the Internet. The crime is being committed by the journalists like Mr. Cronkite, the self-appointed champions of free speech, who say anything to get the upper hand in an argument but can't get around the fact that they know nothing of what they speak about. These journalists get off on urging for accurate and responsible reporting, yet they come back with early twentieth century arguments. Mr. Cronkite has revealed himself to be just as mindless as his fellow journalists. That's just the way it is.

Perhaps the most tragic part of all this is that Mr. Cronkite didn't get the joke. I would help, but unfortunately, you can't just download a sense of humor and suddenly it's all okay... Bring on the "crusade", baby; we could use another 'Net legend to go up there with GOOD TIMES and the Unamailer.

A rare thumbs-up to Cool Site of the Day for taking all this in good fun, as it was originally meant to be. Tim Hughes, the offender, has a letter which summarizes the whole situation much better than I did.


 
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