Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes in the Digital Age

"But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

While reading articles this week about OSU football coach Jim Tressel's resignation and an op ed piece in the New York Times about the Syrian government's attempts to squelch the use of the internet by that country's dissidents, I was struck by how similar, and similarly naive, the reactions of both have been to media in the digital age.

Much as the emperor's tailors hoodwinked him into believing that his fine garments could only be seen by those smart enough, or worthy enough of his station, to see them so too both the Ohio State administration and the Syrian regime seem to think that despite the explosion of communication technology and instant news, whether via Facebook, Twitter, or on-line publications, it's still business as usual when it comes to the dissemination of information.

"You only need to know what we tell you," they seemed to say, "and that should be good enough." Unfortunately for both, however, news is not something that can be easily controlled these days, whether via a press conference or security checks asking dissidents if they "have a Facebook" on their laptops.

Today there are millions of children itching to expose the emperors for what they are -- naked posers. And they're increasingly willing to do it at the cost of their careers, or even their lives.

While this is somewhat understandably lost on the despotic government in Syria, the naivete of those in charge at Ohio State, particularly its President Gordon Gee and its Athletic Director Gene Smith, both of whom are among the highest paid college administrators in their positions in the country, is astonishing.

Tressel's transgressions certainly aren't -- after all, he's been cheating for 20 years now. Perhaps the only surprise is that, with that much practice at plausible deniability, he finally got caught.

As news slowly leaked out that Tressel knew of his players' NCAA infractions, failed to inform the administration or the NCAA about them despite his obligation to do so, and then lied to the NCAA on reporting forms about the absence of violations, Gee and Smith were faced with two choices: realize that the jig was up and try to salvage some part of the football program's (not to mention the academic institution's) reputation; or pretend that Emperor Tressel really was wearing the finest sweater vest ever created, invisible to all who weren't worthy of seeing it.

That they chose the later course, and the way that they did it, bowing and scraping at the Emperor's feet, makes for great, though squeamish, theatre.

Not much doubt after that about who was running the asylum, the lengths to which the OSU administration would go to hold on to Tressel, or the fact that Gee and Smith had gone "all in" with the strategy that they could convince the press that it was time for everyone to move on, nothing more to see.

It wasn't Facebook or Twitter that ultimately took down Tressel, and presumably left Gee and Smith to try to cover their tracks by forcing his resignation, but rather Yahoo, Ohio State's own student newspaper, The Lantern, and Tressel's damning emails.

While the editor of The Lantern hasn't actually been harmed yet for his journalistic integrity, not surprisingly he has been threatened. And, no, not even this University of Michigan fan would go so far as to compare the ruthlessness of the Syrian government to Buckeye Nation. But the similarly naive approach to the dissemination of information in the digital age is certainly there.

The lesson that should be learned, maybe not for Gee or Smith, certainly not for Tressel, is that "the news" is increasingly an amorphous being with a life of its own. It can no longer be controlled or even managed, only explained and ultimately acknowledged.

We may be facing a similar situation in our state as information and rumors slowly leak out about WVU football's Dauphin Prince's (Dana Holgorsen) escapades at a local casino, and perhaps elsewhere. One can only hope that Mountaineer A.D. Oliver Luck, who appears to be very bright and media savvy, will take a different approach than Smith and Gee did, although the early signs do not look good. At least odds are that Luck won't wear a bow tie at his press conference, if there is one.

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