From the Publisher: A Day of Irony

Starr Day! It was a little like Pearl Harbor Day, which another U.S. president proclaimed would live in infamy. But when Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr dropped his particular brand of bomb in Washington, it reverberated across the internet with a different impact. Sept. 11, 1998, is a day that will live . . . in irony.

As our page-one coverage of this unprecedented internet event makes clear, what happened could excite ambivalence.

Sept. 11 marked the highest spike of internet traffic in history. As Starr’s lurid impeachment referral to the U.S. House of Representatives made its way into cyberspace–officially beginning at 2:30 p.m. EST–internet research firms tracked an increase in online access higher than the busiest periods during the Olympics in either Nagano or Atlanta, busier even than the opening and closing days of the World Cup soccer championship.

In spite of dire predictions, the internet–initially designed to survive a nuclear attack–managed to emerge unscathed from the Starr Burst, too, in spite of sporadic slowdowns.

For Washington politicians, it was a little dicier. Releasing the explicit Starr Report meant lawmakers in Congress risked violating the internet decency standards they themselves were crafting–on the very same day–with an eye toward education. And for the Clinton Administration, which has vigorously advocated expansion of the internet, most notably to schools–the world wide web became the means opponents used to sow the seeds of its demise.

An internet market research firm, Relevant Knowledge, estimated that about 10 times as many people downloaded the 445-page report by Independent Counsel Starr than downloaded the 73-page rebuttal from the White House.

Overall, that company said, more than 6 million people read either Starr’s report or the White House statement during the first two days after their release. For educators across the land, according to what they’ve been telling our reporters, it must have seemed as though the plurality of those millions was students.

The web site of the House of Representatives reported receiving 10 million visits over the three days immediately following the report’s release.

“The frenzy to see the Starr Report is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Jeff Levy, chairman of Relevant Knowledge.

Yet not even 10 percent of the estimated online population of the United States participated in this ballyhooed web event. The most recent survey pegs the number of Americans with access to the internet at 70.2 million, slightly less than a third of the nation’s 240 million population.

Opinion polls taken on behalf of national news organizations in the wake of the report found that nearly one-third of Americans claim to have read the Starr referral.

Certain gurus and assistant gurus always are predicting that the internet will replace print media.

As a newspaper publisher, then, I probably should take some solace. Of the 80 million people who, by the pollsters’ count, have read the Starr Report, fewer than 6 million of them appear to have done so online. It’s possible this means all the rest have read the report in print– either in newspapers or in “instant books.”

As a newspaper editor, though, I can’t help but wonder whether it also might be possible that people simply fib about their reading. Perhaps most people still are getting their news the old- fashioned way–through the television set. Given those polls, it’s hard to know for sure.

Sept. 11 might, indeed, be the day the internet became Mass Media. From here in Washington, though, it looks as though the jury’s still out on that one. But then, these days, the jury’s still out on a lot of things around here.

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