Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who wields the airbrush at the Ministry of Truth?

It's getting easier all the time to change the past. What is history, anyway, other than a story that story-tellers are ready to tell. Should the story-tellers change the story, who's to know?

One chilly day last September, United Airlines’ stock temporarily crashed more than $1 billion due to an accidental re-release of an old news report about its 2002 bankruptcy. The New York Times reported that “shares of United traded at one cent… down 99.92 percent, or $12.29.” Other news sites and blogs quoted or linked to the NY Times story.

Shortly afterwards, the NY Times article changed.

Today, the New York Times article from Sept 8, 2008 instead reads “United Airlines shares fell to about $3 from more than $12 in less than an hour before trading was halted… Its shares closed at $10.92, down 11.2 percent.” There is no record of that earlier statement on the NYTimes site. There is no indication in the article that a correction or previous release was made. It’s almost impossible to find the earlier version online, except in a few personal reports and isolated quotes on random sites. Months ago there were blogs with comments that referred to the $.01 low point, which have now mostly disappeared. The statement they refer to does not seem to exist in public archives.

Fifty years ago, physically published mainstream newspaper articles provided a fairly high degree of reliability: physical copies were distributed throughout the country, and then locally archived. Corrections necessarily left an audit trail. Readers could go to trusted custodians at their local libraries to verify that certain information had been released by a major central news source.

Maybe this is the real end of history, as it dissolves into competing versions. From Jerry Pournelle's mail.

Update: More on revising the news at TigerHawk. It's the NY Times, again.

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