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Ron Martz: Should news outlets seek to erase history?
By scrubbing stories from websites, media organizations head down a slippery slope
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Johnson High boys soccer team at Chicopee Woods Elementary

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The late Ed Koch, the irascible and highly entertaining former mayor of New York City, once asked this question: “Should we be rewriting history just to make people feel good? That’s not history, that’s psychiatry.”

It is also a form of ex post facto censorship, historical revisionism by another name.

Holocaust deniers have attempted to make historical revisionism into something of an art form that sometimes resembles history, but really is nothing more than fake history.

The Taliban have been much less subtle about their historical revisionism. They have simply destroyed what they consider offensive and not in keeping with their skewed version of history. If you destroy it, wipe away all traces of it and don’t talk about it, then future generations will never know that history existed.

To a certain extent, those who advocate the removal of all traces of the Confederacy from the public square are Taliban-like in their zeal to rewrite history. They believe they are as politically pure as the Taliban believe they are religiously pure but are doing nothing more than trying to erase the facts of history by eliminating them.

These are just a few high-profile examples of recent efforts at historical revisionism.

Last Sunday I ran across a far more insidious attempt to re-writing history and it came from a surprising and totally unexpected source: Georgia’s largest newspaper.

One of the newspaper’s editors took to the op-ed pages to justify and praise that major media outlet’s decision to rewrite history by deleting previously published facts from its online database.

The facts were not incorrect, nor were they embarrassing to the newspaper or some politician or advertiser. They were, however, hurtful to an individual and her family through no fault of their own.

From the perspective of a journalist and historian, that decision to try to rewrite history by denying it was not only an abysmal failure, but also was an egregious mistake for that publication. By doing so, it only highlighted one of the numerous reasons so many people who once trusted the traditional
media, especially newspapers, have
lost that trust.

The issue here involved the identification of a 17-year-old girl who had disappeared from her home in North Carolina last year and just recently was discovered in Gwinnett County. The girl’s name and photo were used in numerous stories not only by that newspaper but by other media throughout the country because her parents had been vocal and open about their efforts to find her.

When the girl’s alleged captor was charged with sex crimes involving her, editors at the newspaper were in a bit of a quandary because there is a standing policy not to identify victims of possible sex crimes.

Rather than moving on and not using the girl’s name or photo in future stories but allowing the earlier stories and photos to stand, the newspaper took the unusual step of going back and attempting to scrub all that information out of its online database.

The editors’ concern for the girl and her family is commendable. However, trying to “unsee” something you have already seen or “unknow” something you already know is impossible. It just won’t happen.

The editors may have been successful in removing the sensitive information from the newspaper’s internal database, although it is difficult to tell because of the clunkiness of the search engine on its website. But removing it from the Internet is another matter.

The Internet is a lot like Las Vegas — what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet.

All it took was a Google search of the newspaper’s initials and the name of the alleged perp and up popped the girl’s name and photo on dozens of websites.

That, unfortunately, is the reality of the modern age of communications. With a lot of good comes a certain amount of bad.

The most troubling aspect of this is that there seemed to be little concern about the long-term implications of this sort of practice of erasing known facts.

We’re not dealing with so-called “fake news” here. This is an effort to create “never-was news.”

What this sort of action is saying is that facts are no longer facts; the facts are what media outlets decide they are. Even though something happened, if they say it did not happen, well, then it did not happen, no matter what you thought you saw, read or heard.

Once media organizations start down that path of denying history by deleting it from the digital database, even if it’s for a compassionate reason such as that of the 17-year-old girl, there is no turning back.

A precedent has been set, making it easier to find excuses the next time around to delete information that might offend someone, might be politically incorrect or might not fit an advertiser’s or a politician’s particular agenda.

And once you start deleting information that may be hurtful or offensive to someone or some group, where do you stop? And who makes the decisions about what is hurtful or offensive? Do we set up a National Committee of Offensive Facts to mete out punishment? Or is that a state-by-state issue?

Thought police and thought crimes would not be far behind.

It further raises the question of how much else did you delete and not divulge? And how many other stories did you go into to change facts to suit your version of those facts? It’s an ethical conundrum with no easy answers.

The traditional media in which I toiled for more than 40 years as a reporter and editor have enough problems at the moment with their reputations in the eyes of an increasingly skeptical public, a reputation that is taking a terrible pounding by a Tweet-obsessed president whose animus toward the media has become increasingly vitriolic.

The media seem to be either ignoring the lack of respect the general public has for them or are blaming that lack of respect on everything and everyone but themselves. To hear their howls of protests these days makes it sound as if they are being bullied when in fact they often are the bullies, accountable to no one but themselves and their own self-interests.

That slipping reputation among readers and viewers is not helped by gloating over doing something that essentially alters history and does not serve well the public either now or in the future.

To delete information — known facts — from the historical record is not only historical revisionism; it’s simply lying.

Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator with a master’s degree in history from the University of North Georgia. He lives in Northeast Georgia.

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