A story has been circulating on the Internet for the past few weeks stating that the Federal Communications Commission is about to offer free public Wi-Fi in cities across the country. Supposedly, people will be able to drop their internet and cellphone connections and take advantage of this “free as air” service. The story didn’t originate from an overzealous blogger, as you might think, but the Washington Post, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers.
The story ran on page one of the paper and began with the opening sentence, “The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”
The problem with this story is that it’s utterly false.
The FCC is not, in fact, offering free public Wi-Fi service. It’s doing something much more mundane, which could lead to more Wi-Fi service, but not necessarily free or provided by the government. It’s basically considering whether to open up airwaves that were once used for television broadcasts. If the FCC decides to do so, local municipalities or private companies could, in theory, provide powerful Wi-Fi service to broad geographic areas using these newly free waves. But the FCC would play absolutely no part. And there’s no reason to believe the service would be free, even if it were built out by a local government.
It’s astounding to see such a patently false story get so much media attention. In the conservative blogosphere, it becomes yet another indication of government overreach. The Daily Caller portrays the FCC as taking sides with companies like Google, who would benefit from such a proposal.
Jon Brodkin, a writer for Ars Technica, who was among the first to debunk the false story, writes “Among the most troubling questions from this episode is why the Internet’s ability to spread information at gigabit speed didn’t result in the story being killed.”
It’s telling that most major news organizations did not retract or correct their original stories. Although this issue is hardly urgent or of dire national concern, I think it highlights two important points about journalism today: 1) When it comes to technology, most journalists have no idea what they’re talking about and 2) Even the most august media outlets (I’m talking to you, Washington Post) are not immune from spreading misrepresentations or outright falsehoods.
In this case, it was the tech blogs like Ars Technica that did the deep reporting and corrected the false story. Blogs like Mashable, which got the story wrong at first, issued prompt corrections, unlike mainstream outlets.
This story shows that we’ve no reason to trust the Washington Post (or the New York Times, NPR, CNN, the Wall Street Journal) any more than we do BuzzFeed, Ars Technica, Mashable or the many other esteemed blogs and online news sites that have been producing well-researched and reported content for years.
In the age of Twitter, the reigning attitude toward all media should be skepticism. Even (or maybe especially) toward the supposedly infallible legacy outlets.