The Media

tshoop@govexec.com

In February, when Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., released the latest in his series of report cards on federal agencies' progress in fixing the year 2000 computer problem, Associated Press reporter Jim Abrams wrote two different stories about the grades within 24 hours. That's not uncommon-wire service reporters routinely file more than one version of their stories as they gather new information or new developments occur. But the difference in the stories Abrams wrote-and the way media outlets used them-tells a lot about the way news organizations have covered the federal response to the Y2K bug.

Abrams' first version, filed shortly after Horn released the grades on Feb. 22, said the lawmaker had found that "federal agencies are belatedly responding to the Year 2000 computer problem, and some of the biggest departments, including Defense and State, are still lagging." Only several paragraphs later did the story note that 11 agencies had received A or A- grades, up from only three in Horn's previous report card last November.

Abrams' second story, which went out over the AP wire at 3 a.m. on Feb. 23, took a very different approach. That version, headlined "U.S. Confident on Y2K Solutions," led with a fact not mentioned in Abrams' previous version: that Horn and John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, agreed that 90 percent of federal computers would meet President Clinton's March 31 deadline for fixing the millennium bug. It also included a quote from Horn that didn't appear in the first story: "Many agencies have made truly remarkable progress in bringing their mission-critical computer systems into year 2000 compliance."

The first story, however, was the one that ended up getting wide play in the media. The Washington Post featured it prominently on its Federal Page, under the headline, "Key Agencies Found Lagging on Y2K." NBC News posted the story on its Web site, and "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer grilled Horn about agencies' lack of progress.

When it comes to reporting on federal Y2K issues, the glass-half-empty approach has ruled the day. Media organizations have been all too eager to frame the Y2K story around the notion that the federal government is failing to deal with a pressing national problem.

In fact, the real story as of the early months of this year was that agencies were making remarkable pro-gress in addressing the Y2K issue, unlike many private companies (especially small businesses), foreign countries and state governments.

The media has tended to put a negative spin even on federal Y2K success stories. Late last year, for example, when President Clinton declared that all of the Social Security Administration's computer systems were Y2K-compliant, here's how Computerworld magazine reported the news: "The Social Security Administration may be ready for the year 2000, but the Clinton administration's emphasis on that fact prompts Americans to overlook some serious risks, critics said last week."

Those "critics," along with "experts," appear again and again in Y2K stories, issuing dire warnings about how the sky will fall-or at least planes will drop out of it-come Jan. 1. They treat statements by federal officials on the crisis as mere cover-ups straight out of "The X-Files."

For example, Ed Meagher, host of a radio show called "Y2K Today" that airs in 120 cities, told Computerworld that Clinton's announcement on Social Security was merely "a go-back-to-sleep message" designed to keep people from stockpiling food or running to the bank and withdrawing all their cash.

Another weakness of Y2K coverage is the notion that if systems aren't completely remediated at all levels of government, operations will come to a grinding halt.

In a New Year's Day appearance on CNN's "Talkback Live," Edward Yourdon, author of Time Bomb 2000 (Prentice Hall, 1999), argued "there certainly isn't enough time" to solve the Y2K problem. "Next Monday morning, 25 percent of the states in this country will be unable to process unemployment claims in the normal fashion," he said ominously.

The unemployment insurance program did indeed face a Y2K crisis at the beginning of this year. States, which administer the program for the Labor Department, must establish one-year accounts for initial claims, so their computers had to be able to process 2000 dates beginning in January 1999.

Not surprisingly, while Labor and 37 states had made their systems Y2K-compliant in time, others didn't get finished. That meant some had to put in temporary fixes to keep systems running-and the U.S. Virgin Islands decided it would process claims manually for a while. But in no case did a state throw up its hands and say that because it couldn't process claims "in the normal fashion" that applicants
wouldn't get their checks.

"If a system can't be totally remediated, that does not mean the program stops," Koskinen said late last year.

Two months later, after Horn released his grades and continued to criticize key agencies, Koskinen made this prediction: "When the dust gets settled, we'll find that I was more right than he was." The betting money here is that Koskinen is right-and that the doomsayers will have a lot to answer for come Jan. 1.

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