Within days, the story began to fall apart. The data was derived from X-rated bulletin boards, not even accessible through the Internet. The study's author was an undergraduate student. Time and the author kept anyone knowledgeable from examining the research prior to publication.
Throughout the month of July, new twists to the story appeared every few days. One of the most startling was that the student author apparently worked both sides of the fence--while he was shocking readers of Time Magazine with sensational claims, he also was selling a "Pornographer's Handbook" to help the smut peddlers better sell their wares.
Two excellent archives are available. Visit http://www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu/ and http://www.hotwired.com/special/pornscare/ for more details. There is some duplication, but each contains insight into this sordid tale of flawed journalism.
Time knew all this when it frightened moms with its lurid cover story
Time Magazine Backs Down on Cyberporn
by Charley Stough
Unwittingly, as it ate crow in its July 24 edition, Time magazine underscored the power of the new Internet medium.
Admitting fatal flaws in its earlier report of Internet pornography -- a college student's "study" of computer porn lumped private, adults-only links, called bulletin boards or "BBS's", with the public Usenet special-interest groups shared by millions of adults and children worldwide. And it made appalling miscounts on the statistical side. And there were other errors, some of which Time now admits.
Usenet? BBS? Huh? The difference is this. Imagine the world's busiest airport, its terminals chockablock with millions of people and groups chattering away in all languages about all subjects, its runways buzzing with cargo linking it to every other place on the planet. That's the Internet.
Now imagine a tiny closet-sized lounge far past Gate 89-W, with a "Members Only" sign on the door. That's a BBS, trading its wares in code, dealing through credit cards.
If a BBS distributes pornography, it's in a digusting trade. But it's not public. A child would accidentally stumble upon porn on the Internet about as easily as a tot in O'Hare Airport would accidentally wander into a locked frequent-fliers' club, order a pitcher of Singapore slings and fax an order for $2 million worth of Botswanan war bonds to the Bank of Tokyo.
Someone at Time knew all this when it frightened moms with its lurid cover story about Internet porn. But not everybody at Time, obviously. (And how about the illustrations? A naked man having sex with a computer? Come on, Time guys!).
Now here's the fun part. Time's shoddy reporting set off a blizzard of rebuttal on the Internet itself, exposing Time's "scholar," his record of doubtful scholarship, salacious publishing of his own, and the grievous research flaws in this study. You can still see it and even join the discussion in the Usenet group alt.culture.usenet.
Time had to back down.
Once a world-class publishing powerhouse able to define truth with its own vision, Time was beaten back by Internet users. None had more than a computer and a modem, and yet with the new power of the press -- the press of a button -- any of them could place an article before millions of readers more than Time ever reached in its best week of ink-on-paper printing.
Is something new and wonderful going on in mass communications now? No. What Time magazine's editors didn't know is that it already had happened.
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