The Digital Journalist
Peek-A-Boo, I See You
May 2007

by Ron Steinman

We live in a time when it is virtually impossible to keep up with change and retain one's sanity.

It is mid-April. I am on the London tube heading from Heathrow to Liverpool Station. It is late evening. The train is nearly empty, thus quiet. An anonymous voice, soft but authoritative, interrupts the boring ride. The voice says, "CCTV cameras are working on this train." These stationary cameras are everywhere in Great Britain, recording every move everyone makes. Remember when terrorists blew up part of Liverpool Station? As we well know, CCTV cameras caught some of the men who did that deed as they wandered through the station. Watch "Mystery Monday" on BBC America or any of the other imported detective dramas from England, and CCTC cameras are often the heroes of those shows. The results from CCTV cameras, both real and fictional, help solve crimes, catch speeders, and frankly, anyone else doing anything untoward that is in the range of the lens.

Aldus Huxley's "Brave New World" hit the book lists in 1932. That was 75 years ago. George Orwell published "1984" in 1949. That was 58 years ago. The real year 1984 came and went 23 years ago. Both books were prophetic. Both books ring with many ideas that exist today. Both books were harbingers of things to come. Today most people largely ignore those books during a time when we should be studying them carefully for their lessons. Some think they are quaint. Others, that they are outdated. Much futuristic science fiction tackles the same subjects as did Orwell and Huxley. Those who favor every advance we are currently living through have created a raging river that is on the verge of taking over our lives and muddling them even further.

Three new films about how Big Brother lives in ways we never could have imagined were recently released in the same week. "Disturbia," "Perfect Stranger" and "Red Road" have to do with spying, eavesdropping and observing, sometimes honestly, but most illegally. My point is that the ubiquitousness of all governments today is usually for little more than to keep an eye on us, especially if we are journalists.

Everyone worries about the state of newspapers – old media, mainstream media, whatever – i.e., their survival and their ultimate form whether in print or online. I am sure it will be a combination of the two. I do not believe one will work without the other. Perhaps critics should think more about the constant assault on journalism, its freedom and the form or forms it ends up taking. It should be no surprise to learn that our current government is not on the side of journalists. Journalists, government officials believe, often get in the way of truth or at least its potential. The tug of war between the government – newsmakers – and journalists – those who discover the news – is thus inevitable. Sadly, all governments everywhere seem to think and feel the same. Much of this has to do with right to privacy, of which there is little new, except how people who want to invade our every thought go about trying to limit it. There is nothing new about any government that works to shape the news in its favor.

It should be no surprise that there is a project designed to collect what officialdom perceives to be errors by professional journalists. Then, when collected, the plan is to throw the errors back into the face of the person who made them. This is to show, I assume, that no one is immune from mistakes. Many bloggers who are not professional journalists are at work doing this anyway, but the proselytizers of citizen journalism are the culprits as they attempt to justify their value in the changing landscape of journalism. Does this mean if we collect mistakes by doctors it would justify creating citizen doctors? I hope not, but I leave that up to you to ponder.

Part of what is happening enables legitimate advertisers, spam creators, and anyone who has access to the Internet to invade our lives at will. The attitude is simple – if there is an empty space, fill it. People with a message abhor seeing a blank space. Others with a so-called message act to clog people's ears with something other than wax. Someone recently said, "Over the Net, you're never given any guarantees of privacy." Every time you enter the Web, someone has the potential to see where you are going and then to take the information and use it against you. Be careful where you step because the Internet is a minefield.

Did you know that a San Diego company now "monitors the instant message conversations of more than a million employees in more than 700 companies?" That is a formidable task, and for what purpose? Company secrets? Messages of love? Hate mail? Oh, yes. Must be very boring. Does someone read those messages? Are they codified for easy access? Do any of them mean anything? Beats me.

Recently The New York Times had a story that described how a New York City government office "has begun using hand-geometry scanners to keep track of employees' arrival and departure times." Unions criticized these "scanners and other such biometrics technology as invasive and demeaning." Scary. It is good that I work for myself in an office with a partner who trusts me. It is good that I do much of my writing at home, where I believe no one can track my movements. Many years ago, the Japanese experimented with monitoring devices on toilets to determine drug use and other possible abuses. Truth is, I don't know if the experiment worked, or if it took hold. Either way, thinking about it makes me sweat, as it should anyone reading this.

Through the Homeland Security Department, a number of universities are working to develop software that would allow the government to "monitor negative opinions of the United States or its leaders in newspapers and other publications overseas." We are back to journalism, again. Can machines -- read computers -- do this better than human intelligence? I think not. What happened to old-fashioned reading? Or does reading have its limitations and the possibility of skewed opinions? Along with that, late last year, when Donald Rumsfeld was still Secretary of Defense, the Pentagon decided to reorganize its office of public affairs "in an attempt to influence news coverage." I thought that was their job anyway, something the Pentagon information office worked hard at all day. Obviously, they are not doing it well enough for our current government. I expect nothing has changed under the new secretary, Robert Gates.

Problem is that if any of these ideas work, and they become entrenched as part of the operations of a department, they somehow will remain there forever, yes, for all time. Journalists, or not, we had better learn to watch our backs.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.