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The Message is the Medium: Online All the Time For Everyone

Author: Tom Koch
Publisher: Westport, CN: Praeger, 1996
Review Published: September 1998

 REVIEW 1: Cynthia Ho

Cynthia Ho raises a good question: "who is the audience?" She continues by suggesting that "The Message Is the Medium, while useful in places, has been superseded by general knowledge: "Those with [Internet] experience will have already intuitively figured out almost all of what he wants to tell us."

The question deserves a response. But the observation is contradicted by her review. She needs to read the book again.

The Message Is the Medium was written for the new and general user as a primary audience. The media professional and academic were seen as potential readers. So while the book does not overtly focus on the wealth of data offered by academic theorists in information science (footnotes are at a minimum) it does consider issues raised by them in a concrete, direct fashion.

Its chapters were developed in lectures and classes offered to a variety of both news-based and academic clients (Poynter Institute for Media Studies; European Journalism Center; CTV; etc.) in Canada, the US, and Europe. Examples in the book were taken from my work as a data broker and as a journalist, and in other areas, from my work with caregivers of those with disabilities. My web page lists a number of these presentations, and their audiences. There she'll find papers (footnoted, etc.) analyzing the data on the relation between online data and the needs of normal people facing health crises.

Because the book is built from the bottom up, from the way people use online tools towards the meaning of that use does not mean it is of little interest to those with online experience. Indeed, Ho inadvertently makes this very clear in the assumptions she brings to and imposes on the book in this review. In my chapter on news, for example, she complains, I note that the "proclamations of officialdom" limit access to public data generally. "The Internet is the answer to this dilemma," she insists reflexively, "for it gives us a more direct access to the real truth."

"Real Truth?" Now, were I to talk about "real truth" she would correctly criticize me. But as my book makes clear, this is a subject area where people live their intelligence at home. And her review is a clear example. Real Truth? Her apparently evangelic assumptions blind her to real issues and real complexities. The vast majority of online news, for example, has the same form and identical content as the printed version of these organs. And that news is based--as study after study has shown--on the views of officialdom. Yes, there are exceptions. No, truth is not revealed.

Like its predecessors, The News as Myth (1990) and Journalism for the 21st Century (1991), this book argues that online data may lead to better public access to public information. That hope is not yet, however, a reality. For her to argue "Real Truth" as an obvious fact and an online inevitability is . . . disappointing and surprising.

And so it goes ... Ho somewhat cavalierly imposes assumptions and presumptions in her review, reflexively challenging the substantive as opposed to the instructional chapters of this book. True: to challenge McLuhan's original dictum is to argue against the common wisdom she clearly and reflexively accepts. Unfortunately, the substantive issues presented in this book are thus not only not discussed by her, but because they seem to violate her prior assumptions, not even recognized.

That's too bad. Both the book -- and readers -- deserved her clear rather than her knee-jerk consideration.

Maybe next time.

Tom Koch


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