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You can rewrite history but we do not

The subject of a several-year-old news story has called us twice requesting we alter our online account. The story about him was positive and accurate but there is a personal item in it that has changed according to the recent call. He made a polite request that we delete or replace a portion of the story as the presence of the personal information, which this subject supplied himself, now creates conflict whenever it pops up on an internet search.

We declined to make any change. On the surface it may seem harmless to alter a trivial portion of a news story that few people have any interest in at this point. There is nothing the outside world/a future employer/a voter would find in that story to affect the subject’s career, political chances, or reputation. 

For us it’s the principle involved. To help this fellow out would literally change history. Even though the individual in question will never make a footnote in the annals of Pickens County, changing an accurate recording of an event is anathema to anyone who takes truth and facts seriously.

We published the story and it was accurate. It was a complete snapshot of a minor event and we aren’t changing it to suit someone’s fancy.

If we had done this guy a favor, it would open the door to future requests and erodes a newspaper’s responsibility to record the daily events, good and bad and minor.

For argument’s sake, you could take it up a small notch - suppose a politician wanted a column he once wrote endorsing some program/person removed online as the political winds had since changed. He might argue that he had written it but didn’t feel that way any longer so we should delete it -- and give him leeway to claim he had never felt that way.

Or to go another step, some 40-year-old asking us to remove an arrest story from when he was 18 as it keeps popping up on searches (young people be careful because this does happen).

To take this argument to the extreme, consider that in the oft-cited book 1984 - the main character works at the Ministry of Truth. What he does there is change books, records and newspapers to make sure history accurately reflects the current Big Brother ideology. Just like this caller to the Progress, it is much more convenient when the past can be edited to accommodate the present.

We would also like to point out that the man calling the Progress didn’t ask us to change our print editions, bound in book form, here and at the library and at the UGA archives and in many cases stored in trunks or clipped in scrapbooks or hanging on refrigerators. Nor did he ask us to recall all the issues we sold the week he made the paper. No one would even consider making those requests because they are so unrealistic. What’s printed on old-fashioned paper and mailed to several thousand people every week is as good as set in stone. 

There is no altering published print editions, regardless of the power or position of the person offended, embarrassed or angry. There is no going back a few years later and claiming something didn’t happen when you know darn well archives still have that news story about it.

Websites can be changed and online archives deleted. On social media, how do you know if the post you find is an unedited retelling?

Maybe newspapers are old-fashioned, but like a lot of things and people who are old-fashioned, we are also reliable, stable, and not subject to whims.