Of all the disruptions caused by the Web, the chance that an old New York Times story featuring incomplete or outdated bad news about you might nix your chance of getting a job must rank near the bottom. Yet that’s what Clark Hoyt, the newspaper’s public editor, spends his Sunday, Aug. 26, column on.
Roughly one person a day approaches the Times to complain about how his or her life might be unnecessarily complicated by an old Times story unearthed by a Web search, Hoyt writes. His prime example is Allen Kraus, a former New York City official. Kraus “wonders if” the negative and incomplete Times story from 16 years ago riding atop a Google search of his name might be deterring clients from hiring him in his current incarnation as a consultant.
Notice that Hoyt doesn’t cite evidence of harm done to Kraus’ reputation by the Google search. He just reports that Kraus wonders if it has scattered potential clients. The other aggrieved individuals described in Hoyt’s column—all unnamed, by the way—also fail to offer any evidence of injuries inflicted by incomplete or erroneous Times pieces. One person grouses that the Times published a story about his arrest for fondling a child but didn’t report the dropped charges. A woman literally weeps to Hoyt over a Times article about weight loss that inaccurately reported her a size 16. Another woman worries that prospective employers will think her résumé a fraud if they cross-check it against the wedding announcement in the Times from 20 years ago that misnamed her alma mater.
This isn’t to suggest that nobody has ever been inconvenienced or even ruined by a moldy Times account. I’m sure some have. But under Hoyt’s supervision, it’s a spindly peg for a column.
The public editor interviews senior Times editors and others to discuss the “problem” and how to solve it. Pull the offending stories from the archives? Re-report every story challenged as incomplete or wrong? Rig the archives so that incomplete stories get buried in Web searches? Program the public archives to forget “news briefs, which generate a surprising number of the complaints,” but still keep them on hand? All overkill, but Hoyt still believes something should be done.
One of the flaws in Hoyt’s thinking is his belief that one’s reputation is a possession—like a car or a tennis racket—when one’s reputation actually resides in the minds of others. A person can have as many reputations as people who know him or know of him. Positing that the top link in a Google search of a name equals somebody’s reputation is silly, and Hoyt’s column only encourages that notion.
If Google users conclude that an individual is guilty of fondling a child just because a Times story reported his arrest, that says more about their gullibility than it does about the inadequacies of the Web or the Times. The Times is wonderful, but it’s not a vaccine against stupidity.
Whatever their shortcomings, search engines are a million times superior to human memory, which they are rapidly replacing. In the old days, a reader was just as likely not to recall the exonerating or corrective stories about an individual published in the Times. At least the Web makes it possible to look for the pieces.
The Web also offers those wounded a variety of ways to manage their reputations and mitigate the offenses of the New York Times (and of other publications). For instance, instead of carping to the public editor aboutthe damage the ancient Times story might be doing to his career, I advise Allen Kraus to purchase the allenkraus.com domain—which is available, according to a WHOIS search. Build yourself a simple home page, Mr. Kraus, containing your résumé and quotations from—and a link to—the later Times story that absolved you of any mischief. With a little enterprise, you could persuade colleagues and customers to link to the home page and boost it to a place of prominence in Google searches of “Allen Kraus.”
By exaggerating the absolute power of the Times and Google to determine reputation, Hoyt’s column encourages people to think of themselves as technopawns. (It also damages Hoyt’s reputation in the process, but that’s his problem.) I’m all for getting the Times to correct meaningful errors of fact in a decent interval, but if you want to secure a better reputation than the one that Google currently spits out, get busy and build it yourself.
Addendum, Aug. 28: Jon Garfunkel offers Allen Kraus his insights on “search engine oppression.”
Addendum, Sept. 5: See the sequel for how Jon Garfunkel rescued Allen Kraus’ reputation.
I’m not delighted at the current contents of a Google search of my name, but it could be—and has been—worse. How do you feel about what Google says about you? Send findings to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)