TIME Magazine's Moral Mazes


Fairness and Accuracy
Correcting Mistakes

TIME Magazine's ethical lapses started last spring when Marty Rimm snookered the powerful newsweekly into agreeing to a secrecy deal in exchange for a scoop. In its quest for an exclusive, editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt set aside his credulity for the possibility of being the first to report on a sensational new study.

Practicing journalists disagree over what to do or not to do for a scoop. A recent column by Floyd Norris in the New York Times covered the firing of Dan Dorfman by Money: "Some journalists, this one included, sometimes pass up exclusives, fearing that the risk of being used outweighs the marginal benefit of the apparent scoop."

Perhaps Elmer-DeWitt should have done the same. TIME's uncritical acceptance of the Rimm pornography study elevated a fraudulent undergraduate research paper into the national consciousness. For instance, look at the remarks of Senator Charles Grassley in the June 26, 1995 Congressional Record:

Mr. President, Georgetown University Law School has released a remarkable study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. This study raises important questions about the availability and the nature of cyberporn.

The university surveyed 900,000 computer images. Of these 900,000 images, 83.5 percent of all computerized photographs available on the Internet are pornographic. Mr. President, I want to repeat that: 83.5 percent of the 900,000 images reviewed--these are all on the Internet-- are pornographic, according to the Carnegie Mellon study.

Grassley's remarks are untrue. Not only are the Rimm study and its figures fraudulent, Grassley confused the study's adult BBS claims with ones relating to the Internet. Anti-porn groups also have embraced Rimm's figures and misrepresented them. More recently, a German newspaper reporter revealed that the TIME story had contributed to European cyberporn hysteria, culminating in Compuserve's decision, sparked by a local German prosecutor, to censor Usenet newsgroups.



The most obvious ethical lapse on the part of TIME is its lack of commitment to truth-telling.

For instance, TIME concealed Rimm's status as an undergraduate. In the November 1994 piece, Rimm was described as a "research associate." At Carnegie Mellon that is an official academic rank denoting a postdoctoral researcher, which Rimm was not.

In the June article, TIME promoted Rimm to a "researcher and "principal investigator." A "researcher" is not an official academic rank; Carnegie Mellon's research faculty ranks are Research Scientist, Senior Research Scientist, and Principal Research Scientist. But at universities, the term "researcher" by itself customarily denotes someone with a PhD. While Rimm technically may have been a "researcher" in the sense that he did "research," he and TIME misused traditional nomenclature in a deceptive manner.

As a science reporter, Elmer-DeWitt knew or should have known enough about academia to realize how misleading his use of the terms was. Further, he was told as early as November 1994 that Rimm was an undergraduate, but chose not to report it.

In a discussion on the WELL, Elmer-DeWitt argued that he did not conflate statistics from Usenet and BBSs. But he did:

There's an awful lot of porn online. In an 18-month study, the team surveyed 917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips. On those Usenet newsgroups where digitized images are stored, 83.5 percent of the pictures were pornographic.

The pictures surveyed were from adult bulletin board systems, which generally are not accessible via the Internet or Usenet. Combining the adult BBS figures with the Usenet "83.5 percent" number conflated the two. If Elmer-DeWitt did not know the technical differences between Usenet newsgroups and adult BBS download areas, he should have investigated it. If he did know the differences, then he was not telling the truth. In either case, a demonstrable lack of commitment to truth-telling exists on the part of TIME.

TIME also had information revealing Rimm's past exploits and attempts to manipulate the media -- but concealed it from their readers. (When Rimm wrapped his head in a burnoose and infiltrated Atlantic City casinos, Life dispatched a reporter to cover the story, but never published it.) Rimm assured the newsmagazine's editors that his anti-gambling history was not relevant to his anti-pornography study, and they decided not to mention it. It likely would have detracted from their exclusive.


Fairness and Accuracy

"Sex is everywhere," breathed the lead sentence in the TIME cover story. In the same paragraph, the story breathlessly described "balloon-breasted models" and actors with "unflagging erections." Combined with the lurid photographs of computers seducing innocents, the article gave the impression that cybersex was everywhere, and parents must protect their children. It directly contributed to the growing national concern over the material on the Internet, and allowed those who would restrict free expression to advance unconstitutional legislation.

Consider the impact if TIME would have reported the same facts, but phrased differently -- starting the article with:

The first exhaustive study of pornography on the Internet found that less than one percent of all information flowing through this global computer network contains material of a sexual nature.

TIMEwrote that "only about 3% of all the messages on the Usenet newsgroups [contain sexually-explicit images], while the Usenet itself represents 11.5% of the traffic on the Internet." TIME failed to multiply the percentages to reveal the more accurate figure -- less than one-half of one percent of messages (3% of 11%) may contain sexually-explicit images. To be fair and accurate, TIME should have reported that information.

Elmer-DeWitt's misrepresentations and errors date back to the first time he wrote about Rimm. That article was published in November 1994, after Rimm's email to Carnegie Mellon's president sparked the school's Usenet censorship. The TIME article claimed that Rimm had "put together a picture collection that rivaled Bob Guccione's (917,410 in all)." That is simply incorrect. Rimm never even had enough CMU-supplied disk storage for more than a few thousand images. Instead, his study looked at the descriptions of the images, a crucial point that is largely ignored in all of the TIME articles. (In addition, one writer pointed out on the WELL that Guccione's Collection never came close to a million images.) Elmer-DeWitt apparently was not one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Some of these concerns may be explained away because of TIME's possible lack of technical knowledge. However, TIME also committed logical fallacies. For example, the magazine reported that Rimm's study purported to be the first of its kind yet also purported to show a trend towards the marketing of more "extreme" sexual images online. In other words, if Rimm was the first to measure cyberporn consumption, he couldn't also have extrapolated a trend. As the EFF's Mike Godwin pointed out, that is a logical inconsistency -- not one that requires methodological expertise to recognize.

Nowhere in the TIME article does Elmer-DeWitt reveal that serious questions were raised about the study before it went to press. However, Donna Hoffman, a professor at Vanderbilt University, had expressed very strong reservations about the methodology of Rimm's study to Elmer-DeWitt as he was writing the article. Godwin also had early information about the study and told his concerns to TIME's researchers and Elmer-DeWitt directly. Godwin also brought up that he knew prior to publication of the "Cyberporn" story that the Georgetown Law Journal wasn't peer-reviewed. Godwn and Hoffman had told him in June. Not only did TIME not heed these criticisms, the article never mentions them. The TIME reader is led to believe that the study was rigorous and without fault.

Hoffman and Prof. Thomas Novak have identified a variety of areas where TIME's coverage has been unfair or inaccurate, or both:

p. 38, 3rd graf The Rimm study is not "an exhaustive study of online porn - what's available, who is downloading it, what turns them on..." The Rimm study is instead an unsophisticated analysis of descriptions of pornographic images on selected adult BBSs in the United States. The study findings cannot be generalized beyond this narrow domain.

p. 38, 5th graf TIME says, "There's an awful lot of porn online." But in fact, Rimm's own figures suggest that the amount of pornography on Usenet and the World Wide Web represents an extremely small percentage of the total information available on the Internet. TIME further neglects to clarify this by noting that the vast bulk of Rimm's study concerns files that reside exclusively on adult BBSs, which is a very minor portion of "online," and which does not include the Internet.

p. 38, 5th graf TIME says that 83.5% of images in Usenet binaries groups are pornographic; however, this number is simply incorrect. What Rimm actually wrote (p 1867) was "Among the pornographic newsgroups, 4206 image posts were counted, or 83.5% of the total posts." This is based upon 17 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered "pornographic" and 15 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered "non-pornographic."

p. 38,40, 6th graf TIME says that '[t]rading in sexually explicit imagery, according to the report, is now 'one of the largest (if not the largest) recreational applications of users of computer networks.'" But there is no evidence for this statement as Rimm's study does not examine "trading behavior" on Usenet news groups, only aggregate *postings*.

TIME's responsibility to its readers is to provide reportage that is as fair and accurate as reasonably possible. For TIME uncritically to accept Rimm's findings as fact violates the fundamental principles of journalism.

Even TIME's interview with Robert Thomas, in prison for distributing obscene images, was done in an underhanded manner. Mike Godwin reported on July 15, 1995:

Wendy Cole, the Time magazine reporter who interviewed Robert Thomas for the "Marquis de Sade of Cyberspace" sidebar, omitted to mention to Thomas during the course of the interview (which he estimates to have been an hour long) that the "CMU study" that she'd told Thomas was the centerpiece of the Time story was conducted by one Martin Rimm, or that Robert Thomas and his Amateur Action BBS were declared by the study to be the "market leader" of adult BBSs ("That's not true," Thomas interrupted me to say when I was relating this to him), or that the Rimm article itself declared Thomas to be "The Marquis of Cyberspace." Said Thomas today in an interview from prison: "If Wendy Cole had told me that Rimm was involved in that study in any way, I'd have said 'Go away, leave me alone." That is, he said, he would never have given Time that interview...

Since she never mentioned any of these facts to Robert Thomas, the first time he'd heard of the singular attention he receives in the Rimm article was when I told him about it during my interview with him just an hour and half ago.

Elmer-DeWitt also never revealed that all of the sexually-explicit images on Usenet are encoded. An actual excerpt from a pornographic image posting is:

begin 644 FITT_059.GIF

Decoding from this format is nontrivial for the novice user, and requires a particular amount of dedication to the task.



A journalist has an ethical responsibility to remain independent of his subject. There is an ongoing debate in the field of media criticism over the possibility and even the advisability of objectivity in reporting, but all agree that independence is always required.

Elmer-DeWitt did not fulfill that responsibility in his treatment of the Rimm study. Instead, he apparently looked to different values, such as hoping the story he wrote would be successful and that the research would prove to be solid.

The EFF's Godwin reports he heard the following at the end of a conference call:

We wound down, although a few voices (mostly mine) were raised. But before we lost the connection, I heard this:
Philip: "Marty, you there?"
Rimm: "Yes, I'm here."
Philip: "Good job!"

Elmer-DeWitt congratulating Rimm for defending his study on the air is disheartening at best. A journalist's interest should be in discovering the truth, not in sculpting it. But that's not the only time Elmer-DeWitt is sympathetic to the former Carnegie Mellon student. In an interview with HotWired, he characterizes the Rimm-study debunking as a lynching:

Frankly, I think there's a good story to be done, probably by me, in what's gone on in The Well... poor Marty Rimm is being lynched there. Mike Godwin has organized an attack, and there are precious few voices that are not already prejudiced to one side.

A journalist should not be lobbying for the subject of his reporting to be proved correct. He should maintain that distance -- that independence -- that is a reporter's responsibility to his readers.


Correcting Mistakes

The nation's leading newsweekly doesn't like to admit it made a mistake.

In an interview with CyberSurfer, Elmer-DeWitt refused to acknowledge the many errors TIME had made -- not just the problems with the study, but the problems with the story. He says: "Time regrets the error, but we reported the story correctly... the study was wrong."

Elmer-DeWitt also said: "Even with all of it's flaws the Rimm study is probably the best thing we have for now." This demonstrates his apparent inability to report accurately on academic research. In research, the validity of the conclusions is not severable from the validity of the methods; if the methods are wrong, the entire study is wrong.

A few weeks after the "Cyberporn" cover was demolished by Internet-based criticism, TIME ran a followup. Though the article criticized Rimm, it never gave the reader a hint of TIME's reporting errors and culpability in agreeing to the secrecy deal:

The most telling assault was issued on the Internet by Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, associate professors of management at Vanderbilt University. When contacted by Time prior to the cover story's publication, Hoffman made some of her concerns known. But she--and Time--was constrained by exclusivity terms imposed by the Law Journal that prevented her from seeing the full study before Time's cover went to press.

It would be a shame, however, if the damaging flaws in Rimm's study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet.

In the following months, TIME public relations staff continued to bash the newsweekly's critics in online fora, especially America Online. Their attacks on the EFF's Godwin led one observer to note:

I've been in journalism for fifteen years, on two continents, on eight or ten different beats. Never have I seen such intellectual dishonesty on the part of a publication that made a huge stinking blunder. And it's getting worse all the time.

RPTime engages in attempted character assassination of one of Time's most eloquent critics (EFF's Godwin), on the grounds that GODWIN might serve some special interest. RP is, of course, speaking for the media conglomerate on whose payrolls he finds himself. How twisted can you get? Don't get me wrong: any Time staffer can chime in with his or her opinion, and they're all welcome. But to question, from that position, the motives of others, is just too bizarre for words.

When Godwin said he planned to criticize in an Internet World column the repeated unwillingness of TIME to admit its errors, the magazine's representative, Robert Pondiscio, tried to have the story yanked, complaining that Godwin quoted improperly from one of Pondiscio's public posts. A fax Pondiscio sent to Godwin's editors reads:
In any event, I doubt the editors of Internet World consider my personal viewpoints worthy of an entire column of rebuttal. I also encourage you to read the entire thread from which Godwin takes my words without permission. In doing so, you will amply satisfy yourself that Godwin bas built a straw man, not reflective of the content of my posts, which he now proceeds to attack in your pages.

Lastly, I can only assume that Mr. Godwin is well aware that he has stepped over the line for all of the reasons listed above. How else to explain why he has posted his column on the WELL, where I am not a member, but not on TIME Online, the scene of a vigorous debate, lasting several months.

Ironically, TIME the same right to mislead the American public in promoting Marty Rimm because of the First Amendment -- the very same portion of our Constitution that Rimm's research was designed to eviscerate. The religious right helped Rimm craft his study. In its final form, it was designed to lend ammunition to the Congressional censors trying to enact a Federal law that would enforce an unconstitutional speech code muzzling online expression. (It would ban even great works of literature like Ulysses or Catcher in the Rye from being placed on the Internet.)

For the most part, magazines and newspapers pay only lip service to the freedom of the press unless they're defending themselves from libel suits. But TIME's decision to hype Rimm's fraudulent research did not only ignore the First Amendment, it trampled on it.

* Fax from TIME Public Relations (10/2/95)

* America Online post regarding TIME PR (8/95)


By Declan