HotWired Interview with Philip Elmer-DeWitt

This document is a part of a He Says / She Says set of debates over the TIME cover story "Cyberporn" and the Rimm study upon which it was based. It is has been modified only to add links to related parts of other statements in the ongoing debate. The origional version of this text can be found here.

Reporter Gary Brickman interviewed Philip Elmer-DeWitt, author of Time's cyberporn cover story, for HotWired over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Below, DeWitt answers his critics.

HOTWIRED: How did this story come to be?

ELMER-DEWITT: I first got wind of Rimm's study when I did the story about Carnegie-Mellon's decision to shut down the groups. Remember that? It was triggered by Rimm telling the Carnegie-Mellon administration that his survey had come across some of the same images that had been declared obscene in the Tennessee case on the Usenet groups accessible from Carnegie-Mellon. And CMU, I thought, in a decision not in the tradition of open inquiry on a campus, sort of chickened out and closed down those newsgroups, which led to this student protest, and I wrote about it.

Rimm was hard to get a hold of the week that I was doing that story, so I had to interview a number of people, Marvin Sirbu and others, to find out what this study was in order to fully report what had happened. Finally, late in the week he [Rimm] got back to me, and I went over how I had described the study and he said "geez, I can't believe you got that right!" He ended up being impressed by how I managed, he thought accurately, to characterize his study. A few months later, he emailed me and asked whether Time would be interested in getting first crack at it, when the study was finally ready for publication. So from the beginning, Rimm was talking about giving us an exclusive look at this study.

HOTWIRED: So he approached you with that?

ELMER-DEWITT: Yeah. I didn't have any contact with the Georgetown Law Review until the week of the study. Rimm always maintained that the exclusivity deal was something he couldn't do himself, because Georgetown Law Review had copyright ownership of it, and for all I know, that's true. But the fact of it is: Rimm set the whole thing up.

So I think any reporter would recognize that this is an interesting thing, to have first crack at what sounded like a definitive study out of Carnegie-Mellon, which is a university with a long tradition in the Internet. It is a study that triggered this controversial crackdown at Carnegie-Mellon. And as it happened, the issue of pornography on the Internet had grown and come to the front burner. The study was going to be breaking at the exact time Senators, goofball Senators, were introducing an amendment to give away our free-speech rights!

You know, the Exon amendment had passed the Senate when I got this study, and it looked like it was headed to the house. Here we had Congressmen debating this issue, parents clearly concerned about it, and everybody talking about porn on the Internet, and nobody really knowing how much there was, how accessible it was, where it was, who was seeing it, and so forth, and in this national context, here comes this study that seems to answer those questions.

And that's how I pitched it to the editors at Time. I had told them some months ago that they were talking about giving us this access. The date of the delivery kept getting delayed because Rimm kept saying they weren't finished with it. And then as it happened, the week I got it, we had a story conference meeting, and we were asking "What should we do for next week," and I said "Hey, they came through with this study; the issue is even more in the news; I think this would make a very interesting cover." And they agreed. They didn't say for sure it was going to be a cover; it was competing with two other projects.

HOTWIRED: Can you tell us the other two projects?

ELMER-DEWITT: Can't tell you about one, because it hasn't run yet. But the other one hits the stands tomorrow [3 July]: Colin Powell. There wasn't a compelling reason to do that story last week, and we did seem to have a compelling story - our story - it was quite a competition, but we ended up winning.

HOTWIRED: If you can recreate that story meeting...

ELMER-DEWITT: I remember saying we're gonna be killed from both sides for this. The civil libertarians are going to be furious that we're apparently giving ammunition to the conservatives, and the conservatives are going to be furious that we're even discussing - that we're giving national prominence to these weird sexual things that are appearing on the Net - or at least on adult bulletin boards.

HOTWIRED: So that's the reaction of most conservative groups?

ELMER-DEWITT: I don't know. I do know that we've gotten some mail on the art, saying Time should be ashamed of having printed this picture. I saw Ralph Reed [executive director of the Christian Coalition] on Nightline, and he seemed happy just to use the article, or actually the study as fodder for this debate.

HOTWIRED: Is there a link from some conservative group, like the Christian Coalition, to this study?

ELMER-DEWITT: No, there wasn't. Rimm - I didn't even ask him; he volunteered - said "we talked to just about everybody; the one group I didn't want to talk to was the Christian Coalition." He never had any contact with them. There's been a lot of speculation on The Well, that "geez, this must have been funded by the Christian Coalition; they must have given Ralph Reed early access to it." As near as I can tell, that's just the kind of crazy talk that goes on The Well.

HOTWIRED: So this story came to Time's attention strictly through you?

ELMER-DEWITT: Yup. Rimm to me.

HOTWIRED: Let's go back to the story meeting...

ELMER-DEWITT: I said, "we're going to get killed from both sides," and I remember someone in the back of the room saying "well, that makes it all the better story." If you're in the business of defending free speech from right-wing zealots, then your decision is clear; you don't run the story. If you're a journalist, you say, wait a minute, this issue's in the news. It's being debated; here's a study on the subject from a reputable university being published in a leading law journal. It's news. And that was the way they approached it. This is news.

HOTWIRED: What about the packaging, the presentation, the artwork?

ELMER-DEWITT: As I said on The Well, this is a very hard story for me to write, because my sympathies are - you know, it's probably unprofessional of me to disclose this, but I'm really on Mike Godwin's side. The last thing I wanted to do was hand the Christian Coalition ammunition. But it was also fairly clear to me that this study was gonna come out and it was going to get covered. And one of the reasons they gave it to me is because they thought I could put it in context.

If you look at the story objectively, you'll see I buried the lead way down deep because I wanted to lay a lot of context. The context I wanted to lay was the prevalence of sex in America. My job is to balance this thing as much as possible, to put this thing in all the possible contexts of American society today, the legal issues, the ramifications, what this is going to do to the political debate, and also to get in what we were bringing to the party, which were the results of this finding.

HOTWIRED: The headline, did you write that or was that from an editor?

ELMER-DEWITT: That headline got done very early in the morning, after midnight, and it was a classic piece of group journalism, and I don't know that any one person can take credit for it. But if that's what people object to, fair enough. That headline is an, uh, explosive headline. Whatever.

It's interesting. On Usenet, where my biggest critics usually hang out, the majority opinion of this piece is that it is very balanced but that the headline and the art are over-the-top. And I guess I couldn't argue with that. I think that's probably correct.

What's interesting about The Well discussion, although Howard Rheingold and Jon Carroll and some other people chimed in fairly early that the article was well-balanced, that got shouted out pretty quickly and that subtlety got lost. What I produced was that article, not the artwork. I thought it really sort of spoiled the story. I don't have the power to undo that.

HOTWIRED: Did you speak out?

ELMER-DEWITT: No, that decision was done. I sort of discovered that when I opened the magazine. No, that's not true. I saw a layout; you know, you have to get a feel for the pace of the thing. It was about three in the morning when I saw that layout, on Saturday morning. And we were all so dead tired. All the decision makers had gone home. It would have taken an extraordinary effort on my part. I would have basically had to wake up everybody on Saturday and fight a rear-guard action that I'd probably lose. Maybe that was a mistake on my part. But that's not really my job. When a managing editor and an art director decide on a layout ... I don't know what to say. I probably did screw up there. A political decision on my part.

HOTWIRED: Was there any involvement from higher corporate people in this story?

ELMER-DEWITT: The editor in chief did get involved. Norm Pearlstine asked for some changes. He actually asked about how solid was the study; were we sure about the credentials of the study? Also, midweek, when Donna Hoffman raised her objections to the study, I relayed them to the top editors, and said, "the one cloud on our horizon is that some questions have been raised about the study" and that we were looking into them.

HOTWIRED: Pearlstine said, look into it?

ELMER-DEWITT: He asked Jim Gaines - I didn't speak to him directly - and Jim Gaines called me and I said, yeah, they've raised some objections. They say this was done by an undergraduate and that the guy has confused adult bulletin boards with the Usenet, that was the thrust of it.

First of all, the guy's a graduate, not an undergraduate, but it is true that most of the study was done when he was an undergraduate. But Marvin Sirbu made the point, and I thought it was a fair one, that this guy was not your typical undergraduate. He was 30 years old. He had a lot of life experience, and this was not an undergraduate term paper. This was an 18-month study done with a lot of support, a lot of faculty members, advice from a whole bunch of people. To dismiss it as an undergraduate's report wasn't fair. I thought that was a cheap shot on Donna Hoffman's part, and I overrode it for that reason.

HOTWIRED: Did you see the note on The Well from David Post from Georgetown?

ELMER-DEWITT: I do know that David Post was the one who leaked the fact that we were doing a cover story on this. There have been three or four people who have been, for various reasons, working very hard to discredit the study. David Post was one, Donna Hoffman was the second, and Mike Godwin was the third.

I have no objections to people critiquing academic research; that's the way academic research works. But what's gone on The Well is not exactly an academic critique, is it? A lot of the people who have objected to the fact that Rimm's study was published without the kind of peer review that a nature or science article gets are very quick to accept as gospel the critique of people with no academic credentials.

It's very hard for me to say this on The Well, because everything I say gets crammed down my throat by Godwin. But, geez, you'd think these people would have the patience to let someone look at it who's objective!

HOTWIRED: You've seen the final study, and you've seen the critiques...

ELMER-DEWITT: I saw Donna Hoffman's critique, which, by the way, I answered some of them. She listed a whole bunch of errors, and I ticked off seven or eight in a message on The Well this morning. She calls an error the fact that I quote Rimm saying something.% Well, Rimm said it! That's not an error on my part. She casts as an error the fact I report only 3 percent of the Usenet newsgroups are pornographic, and that the Usenet is only 11 percent of the traffic on the Internet. But she says, it's an error because he didn't do the rest of the math and say that equals .5 percent of the total traffic on the Internet.% Well, first of all, that ignores all the FTP sites, where there's a lot of pornographic traffic. So it isn't really correct to finish that statement.

And it's also just a matter of good science writing. You pack too many math facts in a sentence and you've lost your readers. But she lists that as an error. Anyway, I made an attempt to answer some of those; I don't expect them to be accepted in any better faith than the rest of what I have been saying on The Well.

Frankly, I think there's a good story to be done, probably by me, in what's gone on in The Well. This might be self-serving, but it feels like poor Marty Rimm is being lynched there. He's not getting a fair trial; his study's not getting a fair trial. Mike Godwin has organized an attack, and there are precious few voices that are not already prejudiced to one side.

HOTWIRED: What's your feeling about this study? Do you think this is a solid piece of academic research? Are there things you have problems with?

ELMER-DEWITT: Well, we did have some problems with the study. I have to say I don't think it's the most mature piece of academic research I've ever seen. It's basically a descriptive study. It's a count of how many messages of a certain type there are on adult bulletin board systems and a-less-than-satisfactory estimate of the number of those kinds of messages on the Usenet. It is sort of immature in that it doesn't have a real sharp point to be made, except here's how much stuff there is.

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