Saturday, May 5, 2007

Getting the Story

Investigative journalism can be a process that feeds itself. This is because, once a story has been reported, there is often an equally interesting story having to do with how that story came to be reported in the first place. All the President's Men tapped into a general public fascination with such a "story behind the story" and did a good enough job that its story would eventually be made into a film. I found greater personal interest in the November 1979 issue of The Progressive, in which Howard Morland's "H-bomb Secret" finally appeared in print. I had been drawn into the controversy over attempts to suppress publication of this article, following the details from issue to issue with great interest, due, at least in part, to the fact that I was working, at the time, at a "think jar" in Santa Barbara on research that required my holding a clearance at the Secret level. The real story in this article was the not secret itself but the story of how Morland could learn it without any clearances or technical credentials. This was not a story about the H-bomb but about the "culture of secrecy" that had been formed around it, raising questions about the value of that culture are continue to be asked in today's "Internet Age."

I should probably insert an aside here about attitudes towards computers in 1979. By 1979 the Arpanet (the first seed of what is now the Internet) had been built, and ARPA was inviting various institutions, mostly academic and governmental, to join. My own funding was coming from the Army, more specifically the Ballistic Missile Defense Advanced Technology Center (BMDATC) in Huntsville, Alabama. I had been attracted to the project because it involved some of the earliest work in distributed computing. The bottom line was that BMDATC wanted nothing to do with the Arpanet because they were afraid that they would have to share there distributed computing resources with the rest of the network! My first experiences with the Arpanet came through an account I had at the Wharton School that was created when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. I could dial in to Wharton from my office in Santa Barbara and from there connected to my account back at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where I had written my thesis. These were my only "interactive" resources, since, whatever the "spirit" of distributing computing may have been, all of my funded work took place in a batch-processing environment!

Today's "story behind the story" was prepared by Brian Ross and his investigative team for the Blotter Web site maintained by ABC News. The "foreground story" for which this is background is, of course, that of Jeane Palfrey and the high-profile customers of her "sexual fantasy" business. While I have been more interested in the way Ms. Palfrey ran this as a business like any other business, most of the interest has been in who those customers were; so today's Blotter provided an account of what it is like sorting through the records of 30,000 phone calls made from 2002 through 2006. As Dick Wolf fans know, this sort of investigation can be turned into a fascinating narrative; and, while the length of the article could not really do justice to the process (not the way Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward could at a book-length scale), it was certainly better than collapsing the temporal scale to the short attention span of a Law & Order episode.

Most revealing, however, were the comments following the Blotter post. Most of them involved indignant reactions to the fact that the results of the investigation (that is, the names of those high-profile customers) did not appear as a "punch line." I guess the authors of those comments did not both to read the title, which made it clear that this was a "background," rather than a "foreground" story. I would assume that, now that ABC has these names, they have to figure out what to do with them; and that probably has more to do with how they will continue to "rule" this story (which gives them a competitive edge) than with any other factors. After all, their only priority right now is to draw your eyeballs to tonight's World News Saturday!

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