Rant on the occasion of the signing of the Communications Decency Act

By Howard Rheingold

This morning turned out, through one of those weird accidents that history hands you, the day of the Web blackout.

Got up this morning and headed for Planet Hollywood, a place I never would ave stepped foot in otherwise, to do a panel with Paul Saffo and Esther Dyson. Illustra got this big to-do together weeks ago, as self-promotion leveraged on Rick Smolan's self-promotion. Rick had invited me to contribute an essay to his "Twenty Four Hours in Cyberspace" project. I thought Rick was doing a pretty cool thing, bringing people's attention to some of the pleasant and beneficial things happening in cyberspace. God knows we need as much of that as possible to counter the hysteria whipped up by Ralph Reed and buddies. Illustra seems like a cool product. Empowers people to publish. And they paid me.

This morning turned out, through one of those weird accidents that history hands you, the day of the Web blackout. I blacked out my main page before I headed out this morning.

The Illustra thing, frankly, was one of the biggest wasted opportunities I've ever seen. They did a great job getting a couple hundred interesting people together and then put on a boring blah-blah for hours.

Then came the panel. I always take the opportunity to seize the subject andwrench it over to how the fuck are we going to look our children in the eyes ten years from now when they ask us what we were doing while a bunch of tiny-minded puritan fascists shat on liberties that Americans have died for. I think some people woke up. At least they said so. I hope I gave them something to talk about. I feel fine about the bux I took from Illustra to do the gig. And I felt fine about helping Illustra promote 24 Hours promote Illustra. Until I read my Davemail tonight.

Rick. Be a journalist. You are the last hope on an ugly day.

American journalists, with a few exceptions should hang their heads in shame. I'm one of the guys who gets the calls for the quotes and soundbites. For years. Ever since this Internet stuff started heating up.I've done ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, BBC, NHK. I've done German, French, Austrian, Italian, Australian TV. I've given the quotes to the reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, and a hundred podunk papers. And every goddamn sound bite about democracy hits the cutting room floor and is replaced by the same idiotic shtick about cyberporn or sexual predators in chat rooms. Over and over again. For years.

I have asked reporters whether they care about the kind of country their children grow up in. I literally got down on my knees and begged the last CBS crew that came out here. The reporters and field producers are sincere.There is some asshole sitting in LA or New York whose job it is to kill the stuff that isn't as shallow as a tin pan full of cold dogpiss, and substitute some off-the-rack sleaze.

There is a code of ethics for journalists, and right up there at the top is a reminder that the press in a free society has an obligation to inform citizens about those events that affect our freedom. Well, journalism is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of entertainment, and these journalists have loaded the shotgun, handed it to their enemies, dropped their trousers, bent over, and put the muzzles in their own asses. I believe most of the editors and producers who failed us so miserably have done it out of cluelessness more than malice or conspiracy or cravens ucking-up-to-the-owners.

The most important piece of legislation in decades took a year to work its way through Congress and is now law. A multi-trillion dollar industry has been divvied up. Do any of us know who really won and who really lost? Does anybody know about any of it except the cyberporn stuff? It was a sideshow, a juicy piece of meat to distract the watchdogs of our minds, while the real action took place elsewhere.

If any part of that answer is up to us, it's time to act. Understand that we've all be malinformed. Understand the issues, inform your neighbors.

I've been writing columns about this since 1994. So have Brock Meeks and Denise Caruso. Wired has been on the case. And very few others.

It isn't just the politicians who deserve our wrath, the craven cowards. It's the journalists and their bosses.

But history handed us this delicious opportunity. After a year of failureto get the attention of the New York Times and CNNs of the world, Rick Smolan, media lubricator extraordinaire, managed to get a lot of attention focused on something happening on the Net that isn't sinister.

And now Dave Winer tells us that Rick isn't going to acknowledge the Web blackout.

Rick, it's this simple. You are a journalist. You chose February 8 as your day to cover. To ignore the anti-CDA protest that is one of the biggest stories on the day you chose to cover months ago is to abrogate the right to ever call yourself a journalist again. It isn't too late. I know this is a headache you didn't ask for. Sometimes history asks people to make a judgement call at a bad time. Sometimes people regret the decisions they failed to make. We have an opportunity here to use all the attention you have masterfully focused on this event to shed some light. You gotta do it.

You don't have to turn your site black. Acknowledge the protest.

Howard Rheingold's Brainstorms | A Rant About Democracy & Communications