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Analysis of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories


[Editor's note: Before there were blogs, there were the Monitor "404 Reports," which began in 1997 as a forum to offer updates on previous Monitor stories and discuss items in today's news that deserved greater media attention. Significant additions or changes to the Albion Monitor site will also be announced here. Do not bookmark this page, as the 404 Reports address will change with each edition.]

The news you don't know you're missing

  + REPEAT: THOSE WHO FORGET THE PAST ARE DOOMED     Gotta love them blogs: Less than a day after Bobby Ray Inman appeared at an obscure event May 9 with no mainstream media coverage, at least 117 bloggers alerted readers that former super-spook Inman -- both a director of the NSA and a deputy CIA director -- had slammed Bush domestic wiretapping. Thanks to la blogosfera, a wider audience learned that someone with Inman's stature was strongly against Bush's policy.

Gotta hate them blogs: Almost all of those postings appear to have been copied from other blogs or some ür-blog, offering the same short snippets lifted from the Wired News report on the event along with links back to that article. Blogging, it seems, is not so much as expressing an opinion as it is about boasting that you're paying attention.

But apparently not one of those bloggers looked at the transcript of what Inman actually said at the meeting (download PDF). While accurate, the Wired News item was narrowly focused on Inman's comments about the wiretapping program; not mentioned were some of his other remarks, warning about abuses of an imperial presidency and his worries of a far more extreme reaction from Washington in the wake of another terrorist attack. Coming from someone with Inman's over-the-top credentials -- did we mention that he also turned down Clinton's nomination to be Secretary of Defense? -- it was far more newsworthy that he raised the spectre of police state in public.

Worse yet, the blog mentions of the Wired News article soon began to vanish from the Internet. The same blog search engines (Google and Technorati) that first dished out 117 hits found less than half as many a week later. The rest presumably expired, were replaced on the web pages by more current doings, or simply disappeared with the blog itself. Even as we watch, the only media coverage of Inman's remarks is fading from view. But this is no problem unique to blogs; according to the Internet Archive, a typical web page exists for just 77 fleeting days.

That statistic may shock; most Internet users probably understand that web pages don't last forever, but surely expect them to be around longer than the lifespan of a bug. We fully grasp that "old" media disappears, as newsprint becomes fishwrap, broadcasts fade into the aether, and magazines drift ever deeper down the pile in the doctor's waiting room until the pages turn brittle and crumble. Nor would anyone expect that any print or broadcast media source contained all the news of the day. But the search engines for the World Wide Web -- where virtually anything entered returns a gazillion hits -- betray with the illusion that everything's always there, somewhere. It's a dangerous deception; if anything, the Web is a particularly untrustworthy source of comprehensive information. What's missing? Lots:


THE "DEEP WEB"   Not available to any Internet search engine are the massive pay-to-view archives of periodicals and newspapers such as Nexis, which contains some five billion documents. Curious what kind of media coverage George W. Bush received in 1986, when he was collaring Poppy's friends to buy limited partnerships in dry oil wells? You'll find the single newspaper article that mentioned him for the entire year in their database. Like most other proprietary libraries in the so-called "deep web," Nexis allows anyone to search its holdings, but charges hefty fees to retrieve articles. (Wikipedia has an excellent, if somewhat outdated, background article on the deep web.)


THE OFF-LIMITS WEB   Besides the Deep Web material that search engines can't reach, there's also a vast number of pages that don't want to be Googled, and block the "spiders" that relentlessly crawl the web looking for stuff to index. Reasons vary; the page owners may want to restrict visitors to an internal search engine to increase ad revenue, may fear legal problems if the material could easily be found, or want to keep down traffic to the site. The largest single chunk of this off-limits material is probably, with pages from 75 million members.


THE FORGOTTEN WEB   To misquote Joni Mitchell: "You don't know what you've lost when it's gone." Search engine spiders aren't only looking for new information to index; they're also looking for information to forget. A major innovation that made Google so popular was that it returned far fewer of the frustrating "404 - page not found" errors than other search engines. This improvement was the result of a simple shift in focus; its computers not only looked for new stuff, but also checked whether old pages still existed. Anything not found was knocked out of the index. This made for a happier user experience, but the downside was that there is no way of knowing that sought-after information had been there, but was now wiped from Google's memory, along with all clues that could be used to find it again. Aside from potentially losing facts important and trivial, the practice tends to devalue older information. The actual significance of Bobby Ray Inman's comments didn't change over the week as half of the 117 links to the article disappeared, but it did become significantly less likely that someone would stumble across any reference at all. Isn't anyone saving this stuff? Yeah, the lesser-known Wayback Machine archives 55 billion pages and may contain some of that lost information, but the current lag time for material to appear in its index is up to a year.


THE WEB NOT FOUND   Perhaps the most damning of all for search engines reliability is that they don't include everything they could. The Albion Monitor's internal search engine, for example, shows that there are currently over 4,000 articles in the archives containing the name, "Bush," but none of the big search engines even come close to listing all of them; Google and MSN currently show about 900 and 500, respectively. How come? Results may also vary widely, dependent upon unknown factors at the search site's network; sometimes the search sites show more, sometimes less. Again, you don't know what you ain't got.

Taken together, it presents a humbling lesson to Internet news junkies. News is still ephemeral; the web and the rest of the Internet are dandy for serving up the current news cycle, but not very good in keeping around older news, and do only a B- job at showing what's really available.

All of these problems will only get worse, thanks in part to our inherent laziness. How often do we try a query on a second or third search engine to see if the results are different? How often do we poke around the lower-ranked search results? On both Google and MSN, a query for "Bobby Ray Inman" turns up a link to the Wired News article in the top 20 hits. But on Yahoo, the first link that mentions the article is currently number 61. That's still twice as good as the result on, where the article is lost deep in the weeds as #119, following pages of links to material about Inman on German, Italian, and Spanish-language web sites. For Ask and Yahoo users, Bobby Ray's not newsworthy. (This isn't an endorsement of one pair of search engines over the other; at times, has returned more Albion Monitor hits than Google, for example.)

Newspaper Internet sites also compound the problems through their shallowness, a failing often lamented in this section. Instead of offering greater depth to news coverage by providing links to related archived stories and off-site content, newspaper websites almost always drop text of the story into a generic template of advertising and a selection of links to "headline" stories. Whether reading about the carnage in Iraq or latest Republican political scandal, rest assured that you're never more than a mouse click away from a zero-percent interest sale on SUVs or an update on the latest doings of Angelina, Jen, or Britney.

Countering these dyspeptic trends always has been a big part of the Monitor's raisons d'être, of course. The entire 10,000+ article archive is indexed with our internal search engine (although visitors can also use Google and others via our search resources page), and almost all articles link back to previous material to illuminate the all-important backstory. Readers of a recent article, U.S.-Iran Conflict Is Neo-Con Last Stand For Mideast Control, can follow the chain through sixteen different links back to a 2001 feature on the history of Iran-U.S. relations. As Mary Shelley wrote in the introduction to Frankenstein, "Every thing must have a beginning... and that beginning must be linked to something that went before."

It would be a great good thing if all news websites provided that kind of smooth continuum between current events and "history," particularly as this White House is trying to rewrite history with Stalinist verve. From the honking big lies -- such as most anything related to Iraq, Iran -- to efforts to swiftboat Democrats and critics, there's a pressing need to avail access to the reality-based record of true events.

But the greatest threat is less splashy than the steady parade of West Wing lies; the long-term danger is the quiet, successful campaign to undermine the teaching of history in our schools.

As noted in our 2004 Wayward Press Awards, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick, that year won a long-running feud with the National Standards for History, which were guidelines for teaching history in secondary schools. Developed at UCLA in the 1990s, the standards suggested the heresy that American history should be taught with an eye not only to America's successes but to its struggles and dark moments as well. This offended Cheney, who insisted that the standards focused too much on the negatives of the past. Nix on the Ku Klux Klan, more on heroic Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The latest salvo comes in Florida, where last month Gov. Jeb signed into law requiring history be taught with strict guidelines. The key section of the A-plus-plus K-12 education bill reads: "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Drafts of the bill were more explicit, demanding the end of "revisionist" and "postmodernist" teaching.

Republican State Senator Carey Baker told the Tampa Tribune that Florida legislators had "political correctness" -- and maybe, more than a little racism and sexism -- in mind when writing the bill: "There was some concern that in an attempt to be more inclusive of everyone ... involved in American history -- every woman, every Indian -- some poor white Founding Father might be excluded even though his achievements might be considered greater."

Laws to control the teaching of history are as worrisome as laws to control the teaching of Darwin in science class, or laws blocking the teaching of contraception. The difference, however, is that a kid can surf the web using the school computer and find evolution-theory web sites appropriate to almost any grade level, or a teen can use a home computer to privately research birth control. But history is messy, and rarely "factual" only. It's surprisingly hard to find a website debating the pros and cons of the Hiroshima bombing, aside from the scholarly, college-level discussion on Wikipedia. For more recent events, web search results can be more confusing than helpful; a search for "Bush Gore election" on Ask turns up a wild potpourri of material both before and after the 2000 vote, including high-ranking results for a cartoon on a Lyndon LaRouche site, a 2004 polemic from an Irish anarchist collective, and badly-done animation of the candidates dancing. And as for the chance that any curious student might stumble over Inman's alarming comments about our country being on the verge of fascism, the odds are poor -- and shrinking daily -- that his warning will be heard.   (June 30, 2006)

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