We are, they say, entering an age of New Media, of talk radio, desktop publishing, and the World Wide Web. Not everyone in the old media is pleased. “The new media cater to and are built up by people who used to sit on bar stools and complain to each other,” declared NBC correspondent Gwen Ifill in 1994. “Now they can dial an 800 number and complain for free.” Ifill speaks for a lot of her colleagues. She’s also more right than she realizes. The “new” media are directly descended from the original media of taverns, bars, and cafes; of songs and rumors, graffiti and wall posters, broadsheets and fliers. In July 1646, an Ifillesque British preacher warned Parliament that alehouses were “the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.” Naturally, the government periodically cracked down on unlicensed taverns.

We still have bars, and they still transmit information. (It is often said that the virtue of the Drudge Report, Matt Drudge’s controversial on-line publication, is that it allows Americans outside the Beltway to find out what Washington journalists are gossiping about in their fashionable D.C. watering holes.) But we also have mass media—a tight web of TV networks, newspaper chains, and mass-market magazines that together constitute “the press.” And frankly, it’s overshadowed the old order of taverns and fliers. This century has professionalized journalism, erecting walls between Real Reporters and Everyone Else. Real Reporting occurs only in certain places (even if Matt Drudge deserved a Pulitzer, he’d never get one) and includes only certain kinds of journalism (Hunter Thompson won’t get one either). It rests on a professional code, too, excluding certain behaviors and making it possible to suspend or expel transgressors from the priesthood.

The advantage to all this is that it keeps out a lot of inaccurate, biased, or otherwise discreditable reporting. The disadvantage is that it also allows a lot of inaccurate, biased, or otherwise discreditable reporting, as long as it conforms to the myths and biases the profession holds dear. (Objectivity may be a worthy goal, but objective language can cloak a lot of ideological assumptions.) Furthermore, it excludes a lot of worthy material, turning away pieces in which the author mixes his opinions too liberally with his data or expresses himself in language unshackled from the profession’s cliches.

The new media combine the raucousness of the tavern with the reach of the press; they contain everything the old media do not. They pursue stories the New York Times won’t touch—and they get more of them wrong. They allow more good writing—and more writing that’s bad. They are more honest about their biases—and more biased, period. They are unprofessional in every sense of the word. And they’re growing.

The Internet. The Net is the new media’s nervous system, the place where anyone who wants can be a writer, editor, and publisher. It was originally a Pentagon project, a communication system designed to keep functioning in a nuclear war: one site could go down, but the system would survive. Over the years, as the network spread to more sites and computers became cheaper and easier to use, its original purpose was lost, or buried. The best metaphor for what happened may be a Third World land invasion, in which the propertyless poor descend en masse upon unused territory and claim it as their own —except that what happened to the Net was far more gradual and far less intentional. Soon, large portions of the Internet weren’t even part of the old government infrastructure: independent commercial networks emerged, like illicit add-ons to a house, allowing entrepreneurs to bypass old restrictions on on-line commerce. Since 1995, all Net traffic has gone through private channels.

Now we can subscribe to publications that exist only on e-mail or the World Wide Web. Or we can take part in discussion lists, some private and some open to all, on obscure academic subjects, political ideas of the “kook” left and right, or simple hobbies and fan passions. There’s more garbage on the Net than words can express—for proof, visit any “chatroom”—but there’s also a tremendous amount of interesting independent writing, a renaissance of pamphleteering. The Internet is dispersed, decentralized, and participatory, everything CBS and the New York Times are not.

All this is well-known. Indeed, one of the few things as aggravating as anti-Net cant is pro-Net cant, the mindless boosterism of certain on-line enthusiasts. Some strike a populist note, such as former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow (who insists on describing the offline world as “Terrestrial,” as though the Web existed on Saturn) and George Gilder (who prefers mystical metaphors to Barlow’s science fiction). They see the Net as qualitatively different from alehouses, as a new sort of network that’s impossible to regulate, censor, or suppress. They’re wrong, of course: the Internet may be resilient, but it’s far from tamper-proof.

But at least their hearts are in the right place. Worse yet are those who exalt the Net but downplay the potential it offers for do-it-yourself culture. Even now, many media accounts of the Networked World To Come expect the early storm of personal websites and independent email lists to subside, making way for a more controlled ethos of organized chatrooms, big commercial services, and movies on demand.

When Internet hype meets Internet hysteria, that’s the vision that emerges. The Net is powerful, we learn, but dangerous. It’s an amazing tool that we must keep away from the militiamen and pornographers. Let it thrive, but under the careful guidance of the government and responsible businesses. Don’t let it become a damn alehouse!

Radio. Unfortunately, most discussion of talk radio has focused on Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. That crowd has certainly had a strong political impact, fueling the Republican victories of 1994 and helping slay the Clintons’ health-care reforms. But while certainly important, such nationwide, celebrity-driven programming isn’t nearly as participatory as the local shows that make up the meat of talk radio. Limbaugh is as much a part of the media establishment as the liberals he criticizes, even if he represents a brasher, more conservative wing of that elite.

Local shows vary widely in quality and ideological spin, but they have several things working for them that the national shows do not. They have a smaller audience, making it easier for listeners to get on the air and, thus, for dissenting voices to be heard. They can tackle a wider range of issues—something before Congress one day, something before city council the next. And they just don’t have the bulk of the coast-to-coast programs. They have less to lose from covering something risky or obscure or from taking a controversial stand.

There are, of course, good syndicated shows. Most talk stations mix local and national shows. Many mix mainstream and radical opinions: with all those hours of the day to fill, all-talk stations are more likely to schedule something . . . well, different. There are a lot of folks with things to say, some of whom are even willing to pay for the airtime.

Beyond the A.M.-F.M. universe, shortwave radio carries everything from the crypto-Nazi fulminations of Tom Valentine to the leftist programs of the Costa Rica-based Radio For Peace International. And then there’s micro radio: unlicensed stations of less than 100 watts, transmitting everything from sermons to socialism to ska. The micro movement makes room for everyone who’s been excluded from the mainstream media monopoly. So on one hand, in Apache Junction, Arizona, you have KISS 89 FM, a station that may be illegal but nonetheless belongs to the local chamber of commerce, covers local politics, and broadcasts church services and high school sports. At the same time, you’ve got stations like Radio Mutiny in Philadelphia, an outlet that, to quote from its mission statement, “is rabidly non-hierarchical, decisively anti-authoritarian, avidly pro-feminist, staunchly anti-racist, and resolutely anti-homophobic.” What do two such different stations have in common? Both have gotten word from the FCC in recent months, telling them to go off the air—or else.

Techie types have been talking up the idea of Web radio, of using RealAudio software to broadcast over the Internet. Such stations would not need to be licensed, and thousands of them could exist side-by-side. With current technology, it costs a lot to do this, and very few—no more than 50 or so—people can tune in at once. The futurists promise that this will soon change, once the programmers have perfected “multicasting” software. And in this case, the futurists are probably right.

But some stations are already using the Net, not to broadcast to a mass audience but to share shows. The A-Infos Radio Project has set up a website through which micro stations, legal community stations, and independent producers can upload and download news reports, full-length documentaries, and other programs. It’s cheaper than satellites and faster than the mail, and you don’t need a computer to listen to it.

Video. If the unofficial slogan of the old media is “trust us,” the unofficial slogan of the new is “caveat emptor.” Nowhere is this more true than in the booming world of low-budget independent video, a much-neglected world dominated by paranoids, pornographers (the medium’s true pioneers, for better or worse), and enervating lecturers. It’s like public-access TV without the production values.

You can’t help but admire these filmmakers’ spunk, putting together little movies at impossibly low budgets. And with a few exceptions, you can’t help but be appalled at the low quality of those spunky filmmakers’ products. Witness such trash as Linda Thompson’s widely distributed videos on the Waco holocaust, videos that did much to spark outrage over the government’s conduct but also muddied the water with inaccurate charges about disinformation plots and fire-throwing tanks.

But don’t write off video yet. The technology is getting cheaper, the knowhow is spreading farther, and when it works, it’s very powerful. And, once more, the Internet may make things easier. If the commercial powers-that-be ever deliver the video-on-demand services they have been promising us, there will be little to stop independent filmmakers and videographers from turning that technology to their own ends, bypassing distribution costs by sending their movies directly to Net-surfers.

Print media. Let’s not forget the printed word. It’s not just there on computer screens. It’s on good old-fashioned pages, xeroxed and stapled and stacked in bars, stores, restaurants. I refer, of course, to zincs, those irregular (in every sense) periodicals devoted to everything from anarcho-syndicalism to breakfast cereals to the Rapture.

The mass media have discovered the zine world, and are promoting a sanitized, domesticated version of zinedom in its Style sections and Sunday supplements. Other independent print media have not received quite as much attention. The fax network, for example, exists in the hazy territory between the zine and the telephone tree. The chapbook can be a mass-market affair, but more and more poetry collections are essentially one-shot zincs. And the flier is one of the oldest media in the world, and still among the most potent: there’s no better way to advertise a local concert, lecture, demonstration, or sublease than by posting a hundred little wall posters around town. (It is also one of the most censored media, usually informally—certain fliers simply disappear more quickly than others—and sometimes not. Not long ago, Seattle actually tried to ban public postering.)

But these are not new media. Somehow, we’ve landed back in the world of wall posters and cafes, the meshwork of conversations and rumors that’s as old as society itself But there’s a difference. Fifty years ago, it looked like the mass media might overwhelm that human world. Now the human world threatens to overwhelm the mass media, invading the airwaves and computer screens that were once reserved for the elite. It’s reached the point where the news and culture industries have started marketing their wares as “independent” even when they’re not. Record companies start small subsidiaries, packaging their releases to look like those of an indie label. Big-budget movies advertise themselves as “independent films.” Mainstream magazines ape zine styles.

None of which stills the flood of truly independent work, of fine alternative news, analysis, and art. And if there has also been an explosion of smut, paranoia, and drivel, so be it: at least it’s our smut, paranoia, and drivel. This populism comes unvarnished.