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This one's educational. As for actionable, I for one am sending the magazine a Letter to the Editor.

This is from the 1/17/000 issue of The New Republic. [emphases added, for statements I personally question]

Why the press didn't understand Y2K.

System Failure

by David Kestenbaum
[science reporter at National Public Radio]

I watched the millennium dwn from the ugly, windowless perch of the government's Y2K information center in Washington, D.C> Camped on the tenth floor, surrounded by mountains of food wrappers, more than 100 reporters listened for the whimpers of dying computers. When they never came, the members of the press turned, predictably, on their hosts. The New York Times asked on page one ("Vast Effort to Fix Computers Defended") whether the billions spent by corporations and the government had really been necessary of whether everyone had been duped by profit-hungry Y2K consultants.

But, in all the finger pointing, the media overlooked one obvious villain: the media. That's right, we (and by we I mean, of course, they) share much of the blame. Just about every outlet covered Y2K wall-to-wall all year. The number and prominence of these reports, alarmist or not, left the impression that technological apocalypse was possible. In fact, the evidence to justify the hype was never there. Y2K mostly threatened accounting and billing systems which have to endlessly calculate cash flows by subtracting the current date from one in the future. Unchecked, the bug could have damaged Medicare and Social Security, but not electric power, telephone lines, airplanes, or sewage systems. Sewage systems don't care what year it is.

But the "facts" were often too good to check. Few reporters pushed for specific examples of software or hardware that, unfixed, would cause the lights to go out. If they had, they would have found that there were none. Bruce McConnell, who runs the International Y2K Cooperation Center, backed by the United Nations, told me that in all his conversations with Y2K coordinators from nations around the world, he never came across a single device that, ahd it failed would have meant catastrophe.

But the possibility was not exactly zero. And so, because no one could guarantee that nothing would happen, the story stayed alive. Reporters regularly and wrongly implied that if a system was noncompliant it was likely to fail. They rarely pointed out that "noncompliant" can mean something as un-newsworthy as printing the date on a form as 1900. Take, for instance, an Associated Press story that ran on August 20 in The Washington Post. The story began, "A Navy report predicts 'probable' or 'likely' failures in electrical and water systems for many cities because of the year 2000 technology problem." The report had appeared on the Web courtesy of a doomsayer (who still thinks the crisis isn't over, by the way). What the report, when read in its entirety, really showed was far more tame - that many cities had not proven they were Y2K compliant. The AP and the Post never made that clear.

And, when reporters did point out examples of real-world Y2K failures, they often got them wrong. THe oft-cited Y2K test of a sanitation plant that resulted in millions of gallons of sewage being spilled into a park outside Los Angeles had nothing to do with a date-dependent computer bug. When power was cycled off and on for the test, a valve defaulted to the open position, causing the spill. The Los Angeles Times reported the story but never clarified this.

When nothing happened by 12:01 a.m., on January 1, the press was quick to say that the Y2K glitch had never been expected to hit at exactly the stroke of midnight. Too bad they didn't say that earlier. On December 30, "NBC Nightly News" hyped a small Y2K bug the Federal Aviation Administration deemed to pose no danger and then ended its report by saying, "But in truth no one can be certain until the key moments come." Networks promised the public that they would be there with 24-hour-coverage should anything happen.

THese and other reports

gave people an excuse

to panic. ANd, in the months leading up the fateful day, U.S. Y2K czar John Koskinen spent much of his time holding no-news conferences, where heads of industry and government agencies swore that nothing was likely to happen. (McConnell has a chart on his wall showing how time spent managing p.r. overtook time spent fixing the bug itself.)

Koskinen and McConnell had to devote so much time to holding reporters' hands because the general-assignment reporters designated to cover Y2K didn't really understand the technology. Radio reporters seated around me at the Y2K center on December 31 filed stories on Y2K on minute and Boris Yeltsin's resignation the next.

Instead of understanding the problem technically, many reporters allowed it to become a metaphor, a Rorschach test for the public, and their own, fears about technology. So, just as the press forever hypes teen computer-hacking, which is actually a minor problem, it hyped Y2K. Reporters, after all, are as envious of Bill Gates as everyone else is. Many secretly suspect there's something wrong with relying so heavily on machines we don't understand. Y2K seemed like some kind of terrible but deserved retribution in which the computer gurus would finally be brought low.

In fact, the real lessons are more pedestrian. Computers are a mixed bag. They simplify life for the people who use them, but they require a legion of information technology doctors to keep them healthy. Those people knew the Y2K problem was a nuisance, not a death warrant. And the press should have been able to speak their language. Maybe newspapers should hire a few more nerds - people who know which questions to ask and which assertions not to believe, people for whom technology is not magic and for whom a computer bug is not the apocalypse. It's just a computer bug.

-- Gary G. Gach (, January 27, 2000


Agreed, this is more partial truth. I would like all to note that Gary has bolded *what he has in question* and I would agree. I personally talked to several hospital administrators who DID have a problem with embedded systems in equipment. (We also have the very public example of the kidney dialysis equipment failure in Scotland). Fortunately, many of these equipment problems were caught by hospital personnel and/or upgrades or workarounds were developed by the manufacturer. Any failures only involved a very very small percentage; even the failures often only require routine changes. But the potential failure rate was NOT ZERO.

In addition, if you do not think that accounting failures can crash businesses, then you do not understand business either.

Where the article is correct is the absurd hype that the media networks gave *in the last 3 days of 1999* when most of us knew that the major problems had already been dealt with. Then when their hype proved not to be true, they blamed us, who had simply been arguing for preparation (in my case, to small and medium sized businesses). But the last-minute hype was not my fault. It is the media's.

-- Bud Hamilton (, January 27, 2000.

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