INSIDE THE BELTWAY: The media sounded all alarms about the Y2K bug Want an apology? Maybe next millennium.

Five hundred billion dollars? To hype the biggest flop since the Comet Kahoutek? The Y2K bug is now well on its way to becoming an answer to a trivia question around 2040, but to paraphrase an old saying, ’The song has ended, but the malady lingers on.’

Five hundred billion dollars? To hype the biggest flop since the Comet Kahoutek? The Y2K bug is now well on its way to becoming an answer to a trivia question around 2040, but to paraphrase an old saying, ’The song has ended, but the malady lingers on.’

Five hundred billion dollars? To hype the biggest flop since the

Comet Kahoutek? The Y2K bug is now well on its way to becoming an answer

to a trivia question around 2040, but to paraphrase an old saying, ’The

song has ended, but the malady lingers on.’



Somewhere, one hopes, there is an enterprising journalist tracking that

dollars 500 billion figure. Spent by whom? For what? Is this just a US

figure , or is it global? Does it count the extra batteries, the stored

bottled water and the overtime pay on New Year’s Eve?



It would have been simpler, all things considered, to have hired any

veteran Connecticut politician (they are less expensive in odd-numbered

years). In the reign of Democratic state chairman John Bailey

(1946-1975), the tradition on Election Day was for some trusted

committeemen to ’crack’ (i.e., illicitly pry open the back) one of the

voting machines mid-afternoon, take a reading of the vote thus far and

report the finding to party headquarters, thus enabling Mr. Bailey to

make a reasonably informed prediction. Y2K can hardly have been more

difficult.



But in news coverage, Y2K acquired a life of its own. Hardly a day went

by without some grave prediction of disaster sent to us by reputable

news organizations - not supermarket tabloids.



Who was compliant and who was not? What would fail first, ATMs or major

airlines? Would Social Security tell retirees it was 1900, and expect

them to wait 75 years for payments to resume? We were asked to believe

the geniuses who devised computers and incredibly intricate software

that couldn’t convert ’00’ so it would register ’2000’ instead of

’1900.’ It began to seem as though ’e’ at the head of a word

(e-commerce, e-trade) would stand not for ’electronic’ but for

’error.’



But when the great day came and went, all was calm and uneventful, and

the media, instead of apologizing for scaring us over what was

apparently always a fairly inconsequential problem, took one of two

tacks. In print, the story was of the heroic folks who had prevented the

great disaster, at a cost of merely half a trillion dollars;

electronically it was ’everything worked, no massive breakdowns - so who

is to blame?’ Correspondents were in place around the world, required to

report breathlessly that nothing had happened.



David Brinkley and George Bernard Shaw are our authorities here:

Brinkley said the one function TV news performs well is to tell us with

equal emphasis when there is news, and when there is not. Shaw once

said, ’Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a

bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.’



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