The New York Times tried to block the Internet Archive: another reason to value the latter

Walled Culture has already written about the twopronged attack by the copyright industry against the Internet Archive, which was founded by Brewster Kahle, whose Kahle/Austin Foundation supports this blog. The Intercept has an interesting article that reveals another reason why some newspaper publishers are not great fans of the site:

The New York Times tried to block a web crawler that was affiliated with the famous Internet Archive, a project whose easy-to-use comparisons of article versions has sometimes led to embarrassment for the newspaper.

As the article explains, one of the important uses of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is to compare Web pages as they are updated over time. It allows the differences between the original and later versions of a page to be identified. In particular, this feature can be used to spot changes in news stories that have been made without any accompanying editorial notes, so-called stealth edits. Here’s why that has been awkward for The New York Times:

The Times has, in the past, faced public criticisms over some of its stealth edits. In a notorious 2016 incident, the paper revised an article about then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., so drastically after publication — changing the tone from one of praise to skepticism — that it came in for a round of opprobrium from other outlets as well as the Times’s own public editor. The blogger who first noticed the revisions and set off the firestorm demonstrated the changes by using the Wayback Machine.

More recently, the Times stealth-edited an article that originally listed “death” as one of six ways “you can still cancel your federal student loan debt.” Following the edit, the “death” section title was changed to a more opaque heading of “debt won’t carry on.”

This is not something that serious newspapers should do. If they make changes, they should flag them up so that people can see what has changed. This is also an opportunity for them to justify changing the text. Stealth edits suggest that there was no good reason for changing things, other than trying to cover up a blunder or infelicity in the original version.

However much The New York Times – or any other newspaper or magazine – may dislike being shown up in this way, it is absolutely vital for the public to know when changes have been made. Without the Internet Archive or similar sites that preserve the original and updated copies of texts, the idea of a trustworthy text for an article no longer exists. This, in its turn, robs such articles of their historical value, since there is no way to guarantee that the text won’t change again, and without notice. The Internet Archive is not only providing a valuable service to the public by making any changes visible, it is actually helping newspapers by encouraging them to be honest and transparent about their changes. It would seem that The New York Times has a problem with that, which is a pity.

Featured image by The Broken Ravioli .

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