Thursday, September 20, 2007

Courts and the Information Order

Dan Rather is suing CBS and affiliated corporate entities for $70 million. Ostensibly, it's a contract case: CBS promised him something and he says they did not deliver. But the NYT may have gotten the real story right in today's article when a picture of Rather was captioned
"I’d like to know what really happened,” Dan Rather said of the inquiry that led CBS to force him out as news anchor."

Sure, it's a story about a public figure having a somewhat public fight with a former employer. But it's also a story about the information order and the role that courts play in leveling informational playing fields and redistributing information. The rest of Rather's quote points us in the right direction: “Let’s get under oath. Let’s get e-mails. Let’s get who said what to whom, when and for what purpose.”

Many will focus on the money here and imagine that the main thing the court can do is decide whether Rather has been materially injured and, if so, how he should be compensated. But perhaps in the case of someone who has made 5 or 6 million dollars a year for part of his career, we'll give some thought to the issue if he says "it's not about the money."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Virginia Tech Report and Information

A report on last year's Virginia Tech shootings was released last week (full report | executive summary). It highlights a number of sociology of information issues among its findings:

  • Widespread misunderstanding about what privacy laws did and did not prohibit in terms of communicating information about mental to family and school officials

  • Some states report information about mental health to a federal database used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers, but there is ambiguity about what kind of mental health treatment history triggers this action.

  • Errors were made in assuming that initial leads were correct. The report suggests that officials "did not take sufficient action to deal with what might happen if the initial lead proved erroneous."

  • Notification: "The VTPD erred in not requesting that the Policy Group issue a campus-wide notification that two persons had been killed and that all students and staff should be cautious and alert."

  • Medical facilities did a good job at providing care but there were many challenges at cross agency communication.

  • "The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner properly discharged the technical aspects of its responsibility ...." but "[c]ommunication with families was poorly handled."

  • "State systems for rapidly deploying trained professional staff to help families get information, crisis intervention, and referrals to a wide range of resources did not work."

What Society Knows

The lead editorial in the NY Times today ("What You Don't Know Can Hurt You") addresses the question of the state's role in the generation of public knowledge. The piece argues that congress should restore funding for census bureau projects that produce important economic data, noting, in reference to financial markets, that "the system cannot thrive without good and timely information." True, no doubt in other sectors too. A question worth asking is whether the political actors who cut funding were aiming only at saving money or keeping government small or were responding to parties who have an interest in restricting the amount and quality of public information that's out there. We can imagine two scenarios: (1) some actors prefer to function in an environment of relative public ignorance; (2) some actors don't want the government to produce and supply information that could be sold for a profit.

We shall see.