Space Ramblings

Google vs Osama

Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden

No that’s not a post by some troll on the internet. That is the lead sentence in an LA Times editorial. And it probably sheds some light on the current priorities of the press which constantly demonizes the internet while poo poohing the war on terror.

After all the internet threatens their business model while Osama Bin Laden doesn’t, making the internet a grave threat to the capitalists who run the dying dinosaurs of the print press.

Among those who have taken particular offense at Google are some current and aspiring newspaper publishers, including Sam Zell (who’s in the process of buying Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times), who once famously asked, “If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?”

Pretty profitable I would venture. Since I assume Sam Zell is referring to Google News which is not exactly a major part of Google’s bottom line. Does Google in any case steal any paper’s content? You might make a case for Google’s cached version of a webpage doing that but any serious newspaper has the resources to modify its code to tell Google bots to beat it. Non-serious newspapers too.

The idea that Google is making money off the content of the press is silly. Google’s main finances come from ad sales and the vast majority of searches do not involve the press and in any case the ads appear on search pages not on search results.

But Google now is doing yet another thing that’s bound to get under journalists’ skin. This month, it announced plans to let people and organizations comment on the stories written about them. For example, if The Times ran another exposé on conflicts of interest within the Food and Drug Administration’s drug-approval process, Google News would provide a forum for the FDA and any researchers or drug manufacturers implicated in the story to respond, unedited.

Gosh, you mean people would actually get equal time in the press? I can see why the press would consider that worse than Osama. The press demands equal time but doesn’t actually like the idea of being forced to give it.

The feature implies that the stories aggregated by Google News are incomplete — possibly because of limited space, but also possibly because of bias, neglect or ignorance. News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that. But Google’s effort may have a happier side effect: It may illustrate why journalism is more than just aggregating information — and why Google News isn’t really its competition after all.

The essence of good journalism is asking the right questions. Google, however, won’t ask anything of those who submit comments. According to the company’s announcement, its only interest is that the submissions are authentic, not that they’re relevant or even truthful. As a result, the comments section is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation. A seemingly heartfelt comment may carry the CEO’s name, but the words will probably have been typed by corporate flacks.

Ah but who decides what the right questions are and who decides what is true and what isn’t? The press in the LA Times editorial decides that it takes real journalism to distinguish truth from falsehood but more often than not, journalistic standards are simply one man’s bias. By contrast Google opens up the door for people to decide for themselves.

Why does the press feel that people deciding for themselves between two points of view is so scary? No Google is not journalistic if journalism means telling people what to think. Google News simply provides information with limited editing. The press insists on providing viewpoint, which it describes as journalism. Google News indexes everything together turning opinion into static and noise.

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