Bad reputation? Too bad.

Jack Shafer considers the problem of people whose reputations are harmed by mentions in the New York Times, and rapidly dismisses it:

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 about the 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."

This seems more than a little facile. Jack Shafer undoubtedly has loads of friends in control of sites with high Google page rank values. He also works in an industry where everyone's media-savvy enough to check L-N for follow-ups. Mr Kraus may not have those luxuries. The New York Times page ranking means that it's very, very hard to put your page above a noxious article about you. It's all very well to sneer that The Times can't cure stupidity, but it's a little rough if your paycheck depends on getting work from those stupid people.

Not that I have a solution, mind you . . . at least, not one better than the disease. But I don't think Allen Kraus is crazy to want to see if the New York Times can't fix this somehow. Nor is someone who made the Times for allegedly fondling a child, but not when the charges were dropped, which is not exactly uncommon. Yes, peoples' memories are also imperfect, but in most cases, they're also limited. Google means that all those inaccurate perceptions can now follow you around the globe.

Update Turns out Jon Garfunkel had much the same thoughts.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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