So asks Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism and Ethics at Washington and Lee University, in an editorial in last week's Miami Herald. His conclusion, predictably, is "Yes, but it won't save itself."
He begins with some discussion of "bloggers for hire" by political candidates, not all of whom disclosed such relationships. But he also provides some examples of manufactured grassroots interest in the business sector, under the heading "Deceit shamed off line:"
Sony launched a website that was supposed to look like a spontaneous, grass-roots effort by fans of its new PSP play station. The site was exposed, Sony shut it down. Wal-Mart's publicists bankrolled a site called Wal-Marting Across America, which posed as a journalistic travelogue compiled by a pair of intrepid souls -- one of them a Washington Post photographer -- who made their way cross-country to chronicle the lives and dreams of clean-living Wal-Mart folk.
Both cases were notable successes of Internet self-regulation; deceit was shamed off line. Nobody can say, though, how much tainted content goes undetected and whether it violates anything beyond basic trust. The Federal Trade Commission this month ruled on a complaint by Commercial Alert, the advocacy group, that so-called buzz marketing -- in which shills pose as ordinary consumers to talk up products to the unsuspecting -- is improperly deceptive.
But the FTC's ruling was a flabby one, and it has no clear application to Internet shams. The average person has no way to know whether those passionate pseudonyms who upload videos to YouTube or commentary to websites are civilians expressing themselves or paid agents.
If regulation from outside is no help, maybe the solution is tougher regulation from inside. A group called the Media Bloggers Association, led by veteran blogger Robert Cox, is pushing for greater professionalization among blogmasters though training about legal and ethical obligations, which Cox is hopeful of offering through the Poynter Institute, a highly regarded mid-career journalists academy in St. Petersburg, Fla.
In time, Cox suggests, the result could be bloggers whose professional credentials warrant the same accreditation that mainstream journalists now qualify for.
I was not aware of the two examples, but I think that the cure could very well be worse than the disease. I shudder at the thought of external regulation and professionalization. Licensing of the sort proposed is often a medium for a select group to stifle competition.
Consider two examples of fraud in the traditional media that were "shamed off the traditional media" by bloggers: the Dan Rather "fake but accurate" national guard memos in 2004 and the doctoring of the Reuters photographs of the bombings in Lebanon this summer.
As a matter of policy, any time we think that more regulation, particularly government regulation would be of use, we should ask ourselves whether more competition wouldn't be better. It won't always be the case, but I think that in this instance, the cure for the problems on the Internet is more competition, not less.
Our ulimate objective is to be able to disseminate the truth, as rapidly and widely as possible. I do not see how we can approach that goal--particularly with the traditional media doing as poor a job as they are currently doing--by clamping down on new media venues, insulating the traditional media from competition. If complete decentralization of control of the Internet is the way we ensure competition and thus accountability where it truly matters, then the fakeries Wasserman discusses are an unfortunate but unavoidable cost.