EDITORIAL We can’t erase history

August 7, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Forty years ago, in the first season of the television newsroom drama “Lou Grant,” a reporter at the fictional newspaper the Los Angeles Tribune whips out a Christmastime story about a homeless family that generates a bounty of sympathy and donations.

Then it causes one pretty major problem – someone sends a clipping from another newspaper, this one in Dallas, and it makes clear the family has been traveling from city to city, telling the same manufactured tale of woe and making off with the dollars and cents of a soft-hearted public as a result. Lou Grant’s troops had been hoodwinked.

While it’s not impossible that such a scenario could happen today, it’s a heck of a lot less likely than in 1977, when the only way you could know what had been printed in newspapers farther afield is if a comprehensively stocked bookstore or magazine outlet happened to get that publication, or if a local library had a subscription. And who would have the time or the inclination to scrutinize a paper from hundreds of miles away day after day?

If the reporters on “Lou Grant” had Google, Yahoo or some other search engine at their disposal, of course, the unscrupulous “homeless” family would have almost certainly been unmasked after a handful of keystrokes and sent on their way.

The digital revolution of the last couple of decades has, without question, upended traditional businesses, but also opened new vistas of knowledge and communication. Want to watch a variety show from Pakistan? Go for it. Want to read the headlines from the daily in Frankfurt, Germany? Enjoy.

For better or worse, the internet has also created a digital trail of our lives that other people can easily track. Every ill-thought utterance on Facebook or Twitter can come back to haunt you. Just ask the students whose admission offers to Harvard were pulled a few months ago because of Facebook posts that mocked the Holocaust and sexual assault.

In the Observer-Reporter, we have long published a roundup of police calls, from auto accidents to arrests for disorderly conduct and everything else in between. As with everything else that appears in the print edition of the newspaper, it goes online and remains in our archives. It is all public information and can be seen by anyone with access to the web, no matter where they are.

Like anything else on the web, that means it can be uncovered by means of a quick search. That means a drunken Friday night brawl can have a long afterlife, and come back to haunt its perpetrators long after the bruises have healed, restition has been made and the exact reason for the fisticuffs has been forgotten.

We frequently get phone calls from people asking if a mention they received in our police blotter or our roundup of court sentencings can somehow be removed. We can’t do that. First, it would be erasing history, and we are not in the business of erasing history, but, as journalists love to point out, writing its first draft. If a criminal record has been expunged, or charges were withdrawn, and we have been provided with proof, we will typically place an editor’s note online at the top of a story or brief that mentions it, but we will not completely remove it.

Also, it is out of our capabilities to remove it from a Google search. Once it is out there on the web, it’s out there. Also, it is public information, and could just as easily be uncovered through background checks that many companies undertake of their applicants.

For many years, lawmakers believed the best way to stop crime was to stiffen sentences, the rationale being if one’s own sense of right and wrong is unsufficient, then the threat of heftier fines or an extended stretch in the hoosegow would do the trick.

Now, we can add another – your misadventures following you online like a ball and chain into old age.

The best advice about not getting your name in the paper, or online, for having gotten in trouble is avoiding trouble in the first place.

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