The Internet as historical record

The Internet as historical record
We’re still learning about this thing called the Internet, and a couple of events this week bear study. Firstly, there’s the spat between New York Times’ chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney and Stephanie Cutter, a spokesperson for the Presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry. Stephanie’s upset, because Adam quoted her criticism of Howard Dean and, in so doing, ignored the note in the Massachusetts Democrat’s team’s email that requested the information be treated on “background,” attributed only to a Democratic campaign. The lesson here is it’s dangerous to try and manipulate people via email. Email isn’t like speaking. It’s right there in emotionless black and white, and you run the risk of it coming back to smack you in the face. Of course, Nagourney’s a schmuck for doing what he did, but, hey, he’s a bloody reporter, right?

The second event is a little more complicated. A Washington Post article Thursday smacks the White House for altering the historical record on administration Websites.

White House officials were steamed when Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said earlier this year that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq — which turned out to be a gross understatement of the tens of billions of dollars the government now expects to spend.

Recently, however, the government has purged the offending comments by Natsios from the agency’s Web site. The transcript, and links to it, have vanished.

The article goes on to say this is not the first time the administration has done some creative editing of government Web sites and quotes Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, “This smells like an attempt to revise the record, not just to withhold information but to alter the historical record in a self-interested way, and that is sleazier than usual.”

Okay, I understand that this is a juicy political story and that the Washington Post is just being the Washington Post. But let’s remember that the press itself has a history of covering its own ass too. Remember “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN?” Historybuff.com provides this account:

Since the papers had already been shipped out for delivery to customers, staff were sent out with trucks and station wagons to get these papers from the news stands and the homes in the suburbs of Chicago. Thousands were retrieved but many remained in the hands of customers.

The “recalled” papers were brought back to the warehouse and treated as regular “returns”. As was common procedure for returns, the upper right hand corner of the front page (the “ear” portion) was clipped off. In some cases, portions of the nameplate and even date area ended up being ripped off.

Next, these papers were put out in the trash to be hauled off to a dump yard. Few realized the potential value of this edition, thus, very few of these were taken home by staff or rescued from the dump yard by individuals.

I realize one instance is a taxpayer-supported entity and the other a for profit business. I’m merely stating that trying to hide a mistake isn’t the sole purview of government. And let us (please) not get the idea that the Internet is some sort of permanent historical record. The day may come when this is possible, but just as the courts have problems with email as evidence — because it can so easily be altered — we’d be smart, in the meantime, to view everything published online with a similar, skeptical eye. How many bloggers, after all, edit their comments after they’ve been first published?

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