Poor Bill O’Reilly. In a recent televised advertorial, doing his best R.J. Fletcher impression, he complained “nearly every single day there’s something written on the Internet about me that’s flat out untrue.” Case in point: The San Francisco Chronicle reported that his floundering radio show was dropped by one Bay City station. In reality, it had been, well, dropped by that station. But it was being picked up by another one, so the word “dropped” was “obviously inaccurate and dishonest.” He said the Chronicle may run a correction, but harrumphed that we won’t be seeing many corrections on the ‘Net.
And, wouldn’t you know, O’Reilly’s plight is emblematic of a larger, urgent social problem. “Nearly every famous person in the country’s under siege,” he warned. People who “put stuff up with no restraints” — mostly bloggers, though he doesn’t call them out by name — are turning the once pristine Internet into a “sewer of slander and libel, an un-patrolled polluted waterway, where just about anything goes.” Worse, it’s almost impossible to rein in these worrisome anarchists.
Oh, but it gets worse. “The child molestation people [They have people? — ed.] have now figured out a way to chat about their crimes without being charged with obscenity”; “they” somehow managed to sucker the Supreme Court into legalizing “virtual child porn”; and, in a completely different but somehow related vein, kids often write unflattering stuff about their classmates, and put it up for the whole world to see. He closed by asking who was worse, influence peddling big businesses or the sinister “criminals at the computer“?
It had been some time since I last checked in on O’Reilly, so this was a bit of a letdown. He at least used to be an interesting crank. For people who actually take the time to gain a working knowledge of the Internet, these charges are so easily rebutted that I fear bloggers and other tech savvy types won’t realize how many people who listened to this screed were nodding their heads in agreement.
This is especially dangerous because some of these people write laws. The Council of Europe is putting the final screws on a proposal recommending that countries pass legislation to mandate a “right of reply,” which would force all “online media” (including bloggers) to give equal time to those people whom they criticize. In the U.S. broadcast media, this was known by the Orwellian moniker the Fairness Doctrine. If employed today, it would put half of the cable news channels out of business, but, hey, as long as it’s not O’Reilly’s ox being gored …
On this side of the ocean, the great spam crisis of June 2003 (and was I ever ahead of the curve on this one) has forged the kind of political alliances that make you wonder if the authors of the Left Behind books weren’t on to something. Any time Chuck Schumer and the Christian Coalition agree about anything has got to rank up there on the end-is-nigh scale. To wit, bits of the anti-spam legislation floating around D.C. would attack the very slapdash architecture of the Internet, including outlawing anonymous remailers.
It’s too bad non-sentient networks can’t sue for defamation, because the Internet would have a pretty strong case. Take O’Reilly’s tirade: The idea that the blogosphere, that loose grouping of vanity sites that popularized the phrase “fact checking their asses,” doesn’t make corrections is just ludicrous. In fact, the case has been made (and made, and made) that that’s what blogs do best. Moreover, because of the heavy linkage to his screed, by blogs, more people have now read O’Reilly’s side of the story than have read the original Chronicle piece. And if O’Reilly believes he has been genuinely libeled, he might think of taking it up in court rather than burdening us with his bathos. Bloggers are hardly exempt from libel laws.
And while child porn on the Internet is a problem, it’s hardly a new one. At least online cybercops can get a bead on those who post and download the stuff, which can be much more difficult to track offline. The only reason the Supreme Court gave the nod to so-called “virtual child porn” (cartoon or 3-D porn), which O’Reilly conflates with the real stuff, is that it doesn’t involve the use or abuse of actual children.
I suspect O’Reilly knows all this but would rather score cheap points against his critics and enemies than tell the somewhat less than flattering truth. That is, as one agitator put it, he hates the Internet because it’s “the one place someone who disagrees with [him] can get a word in edgewise.”