I miss Ben Bradlee.

Not just Ben Bradlee, but everyone like him. Bradlee, in case you don't know, was the crusty executive editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 and one of the main reasons I became a journalist years ago. Basically nothing of note was printed in The Post unless Bradlee took a look at it first.

When I was a city editor, the newspaper worked that way, too. Nothing was printed in terms of local news unless I read it and approved it. And after I read it, another editor after me read it just to make sure I was doing my job.

What this has to do with computers and technology is the fundamental change that has happened to the news business in the last decade. Today, news doesn't necessarily need a printing press or a television studio. All you need is a blog and a laptop. And there's no editor above you to make sure you're correct, fair or even sane.

Last week, a Florida newspaper Web site was blamed for republishing a six-year-old story that United Air Lines had filed for bankruptcy. What really happened is an investment newsletter actually picked up the story after it was "scraped" by a search engine, and he republished it manually without checking with anyone from United. He didn't notice it was six years old because the only apparent date on the story was in the URL.

In the moments that followed, the airline's stock plummeted from $12 a share to about $3 before trading was halted by Nasdaq as the story flew across the Internet unchecked. The stock almost recovered after the "real" news outlets started whacking down the story.

What's scary, of course, is with the rise of the Internet there is mingling of "real" news sites, where news is reported by "real" reporters and checked by "real" editors, and these fake news sites which just toss stuff on the wall. News aggregate sites like Google News are the worst since "real" news is right next to "fake" news, and no human has taken part in the selection process. A computer just picks the headlines, scans the content and tosses them on the page.

That led to some particularly ugly stories about Gov. Sarah Palin's teenage daughter making it onto Page 1 of Google News when they were either non-sourced or false. It's not Google's fault; it's just how computers work. They don't read anything; they just put data on a page.

What I would encourage everyone to do is get their news from reputable news sources — such as newspapers and TV stations — and not from the aggregate sites, or at least pay attention where your news is coming from when you click on the URL.

As the saying goes, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog," and that goes double for online news. It is only as good as the reporter, the editor and the editor above him.


James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jim@cyberdads.com.