February 7, 2013
An Apology—Commentary by Steve Effros
I'll bet you didn't know that there's a new FCC plan to create a nationwide free, public "Super Wi-Fi" network. It would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas, too, and if approved it would only take "several years" to set up!
Neither did the FCC. But all that, and lots more was part of a Page One article in Monday's Washington Post. The article triggered a domino effect of headlines and reporting around the country. As ArsTechnica's web site noted (not usually a telecom industry fan,) "The headlines were literally too good to be true, and so outlandish no one should have written them in the first place. "FCC Proposes Free Wi-Fi For Everyone In The US," Popular Science reported. "FCC wants free Wi-Fi for all," said The Daily Caller. On Mashable, it was "Government Wants to Create Free Public 'Super Wi-Fi,'" and Business Insider breathlessly reported, "Telecom Corporations Are Trying To Stop The Government From Offering Free 'Super Wi-Fi.'"
Oh, about that last one, I forgot to mention that another sub-text of the original story was that the big, bad "industry" was fiercely fighting this alleged brilliant new idea sprouting from the FCC!
By Tuesday, on page 14, the same reporter wrote a piece backtracking from the original page one embarrassment. Not a "correction," mind you, just a piece explaining, as did a lot of other similar articles elsewhere by those who actually knew what they were writing about, that in fact that FCC hadn't announced anything "new," indeed, it hadn't announced anything at all. The "Super WiFi" idea is just one of many that have been talked about for a long time (close to 10 years) regarding potential uses for so-called unlicensed (free) "white space" spectrum, as is already the case with such things as garage door openers. That the telecom industry has not now mounted a "fierce lobbying effort" opposing the white space and spectrum auction ideas, but simply was responding to a current FCC request for comments, and that there is no known current plan to build such a system, certainly no business plan that anyone knows of to pay for it, and not even the slightest suggestion that the government would do so! Whew.
As is painfully normal in cases like this, even had the second article in the Post been prominently labeled a "correction," as it should have been, the damage has already been done, and the correct information has a very hard time catching up with the misinformation and not-terribly-well-disguised advocacy and bias suffusing the first piece. Either the reporter simply did not know what she was writing about, a complaint that has been heard regarding the telecommunications reporting in the Post for some time now, or front page advocacy has become the norm in the media, be it "mainstream" or not.
We are all, by now, used to the "screaming" in the blogs. They emulate the commercial success of the "selective journalism" now so popular on cable. We know, however, where they are coming from, that the information is slanted to "their" audience. We expect both hyperbole and material that has intentionally not been "fact checked" terribly carefully. I have long hoped (and sometimes gotten) better from traditional "news" sources.
For any journalistic effort to be relied upon for accurate, balanced information and analysis it has to acknowledge when it makes mistakes, and it has to do so prominently. In this case, it shouldn't be a "correction," it should be an apology.