Burning the Archives

Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in the Times today is wrongheaded in more ways than I can count. The basic problem is that misleading stories about people linger in the online (and search engine accessible) archives. Googling a person’s name thus sometimes brings up a damaging story from long long ago. Mixed in with all of the usual hand-wringing are some shocking details.

We Get It Right the First Time, Or Not At All

First off, the Times pleads its inability to re-report every challenged story. Fair enough. But many of the examples Hoyt mentions are of stories that were inaccurate when written:

A woman said her wedding announcement 20 years ago gave the incorrect university from which she graduated. … A woman quoted years ago in an article about weight loss said, tearfully, that she never was a size 16, as the article stated. The husband of a school administrator in the Midwest complained that a news brief reporting her suspension was published after officials had already publicly said she did nothing wrong.

It’s one thing not to revisit stories as new information becomes available. (The Times isn’t Wikipedia, after all, and we shouldn’t hold it to the same higher standards of timeliness.) But it’s something else not to append corrections to articles whose reporting was no good. The Times pleads lack of resources: We’re too busy making mistakes to fix them. (I’m more sympathetic to their predicament if the complaints first arrived long after the articles were published, but Hoyt doesn’t discuss the timing.)

The Memory Hole

Even more startling, though, is the suggestion made by Harvard’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger:

He thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events.

There’s quite a lot of arrogance in that proposal: it assigns to the Times the wisdom to decide what’s “important” for all the rest of us to know. Rather than being free to consult old newspaper stories and decide for ourselves how much weight to give them, we’re to be kept in the dark: the trivialities will be be forgotten for us, even if we don’t think they’re so trivial. Even ten years ago, it took some significant money or connections to be able to search through the Times’s archives for a name. Now that that search power has been democratized and is available to anyone with access to the Internet, the self-appointed guardians of the “important” and the “accurate” would like to take it away from us again.

In contrast, the healthy way to use the Internet is to make as much information as possible available, and to use analytical technologies and media literacies to make sense out of it. If people are being mischaracterized online through incomplete information, we should work to give them a voice, not to silence others. At times, Hoyt flirts with this fundamental truth, then shies away:

What about allowing an aggrieved party to place a comment in the archive? How would you police its accuracy?

It’s a nice point of journalistic pride for a newspaper that admits it’s published inaccurate stories to worry about “polic[ing]” the accuracy of comments on them.

The Google Game

And finally, I just didn’t know what to make of this paragraph:

Kraus’s situation is an unhappy byproduct of something called search engine optimization, which The Times has been using to make money by driving traffic to its Web site. Technically complex, search engine optimization pushes Times content to or near the top of search results, regardless of its importance or accuracy.

I’d be very curious to know exactly what sorts of practices Hoyt has in mind. The way he describes it, you’d almost think that SEO was some kind of illegitimate and indiscriminate practice that just shoves your content way up in search engine rankings, regardless of its quality. And you’d think that the search engines were either ignorant of or unconcerned by it, so that they’re happy to let the Times place its stories wherever it wants in their results. And you’d think that there weren’t any conceivable ethics issues with a newspaper primping itself for the search engines like this.

But no. The more likely story is simply that Hoyt’s been misinformed by the webheads. The Times puts its archives online and helps search engines index them. Because people trust the times, stories from its archives show up a lot in search results. The search engines have decided for themselves that these stories are relevant; I doubt there’s much “push[ing]” going on. It must be nice to believe that you’re still the center of the media universe, and that everyone else dances to the tune you call.

Unfortunately, Mr. Public Editor, this problem is larger than you alone. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that you caused it all by your lonesome, or that you can or should fix it acting solely by yourself. Otherwise, you might do something rash … like purging your archives and hiding that knowledge from history.