The Joy Reid fight reinforces how critical the Internet Archive is to modern politics

Joy Reid attends the “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” premiere on April 20 in New York. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

There used to be two distinct kinds of written records: institutional and personal. The former were newspapers and corporate records and political documents and so on. These were important, and systems were developed to archive them. Personal documents — letters, personal mail, diaries and journals — were mostly lost over time, with the exception of some things that were passed down in families or, in the case of famous people, collected by institutions.

The Internet blurred that line. Institutional records were still institutional records, but now personal records could be published as broadly as newspaper articles. Often those publishing systems had built-in archiving systems that ensured that the personal writing wasn’t lost; this was a feature, given that a blog wouldn’t be of much use if you lost everything more than a week old.

But this was the era before Snapchat. In the Snapchat era, people realized that there was often value in letting personal material expire. Personal thoughts that used to go in journals or personal letters aren’t always the sorts of things that should stick around forever, being written in the spirit of being shared with a limited audience for a limited period.

Of course, there’s a flip side to that, as well: Sometimes those personal thoughts should be preserved, even if the authors wish they weren’t, just as the letters of famous people are preserved. Some people suddenly become people whose past thoughts and arguments are important to know — people like candidates for the presidency or prominent celebrities and other personalities. Maybe those past thoughts are embarrassing to the author, but maybe it’s important that people know about them anyway.

In December, MSNBC’s Joy Reid apologized when someone uncovered embarrassing things she’d written a decade prior. Reid, Twitter user @Jamie_Maz realized, had regularly implied that former Florida governor Charlie Crist was gay, referring to him as “Miss Charlie.”

“At no time have I intentionally sought to demean or harm the LGBT community, which includes people whom I deeply love,” Reid’s apology read. “My goal, in my ham-handed way, was to call out potential hypocrisy” — given that Crist, at the time, opposed issues like same-sex marriage.

That excuse, though, was kneecapped with a slew of blog posts discovered by @Jamie_Maz last week. Among them was one from 2007 addressingcomments by former NBA player Tim Hardaway. “I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” Hardaway said at the time. “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people.”

The blog post on Reid’s site — titled “Tim Hardaway is a homophobe (and so are you)” — reads:

“Keeping it real … most straight men feel exactly the same way, and would have the exact same reaction to the idea of stripping naked in a sweaty locker room in close quarters with a gay teammate. Most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing. Most straight people cringed at the Snickers commercial. Most straight people had a hard time being convinced to watch “Broke Back Mountain.” (I admit that I couldn’t go see the movie either, despite my sister’s ringing endorsement, because I didn’t want to watch the two male characters having sex.) …

Does that make me homophobic? Probably. And I’m not exactly proud of it. But part of the intrinsic nature of “straightness” is that the idea of homosexual sex is … well… gross … even if you think that gay people are perfectly lovely individuals.”

@Jamie_Maz found the article because it had been indexed by the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine, a mostly automated tool that, for more than two decades, has been storing copies of Web pages as they appeared at the time. At some point in 2007, the Internet Archive’s system visited Reid’s blog and saved a copy of the Hardaway article, dropping it in a database where it sat mostly ignored for 11 years — until @Jamie_Maz uncovered it.

Reid’s defense this time was different. She or someone affiliated with her asked an expert to explain that she’d discovered that some of the entries on her blog had been created without her authorization. At first she seemed to be claiming that the Internet Archive’s database had been altered, a claim the Internet Archive quickly rebutted. Reid’s expert later said that the archive had merely been asked to remove blog posts that were added without Reid’s authorization, which the archive declined to do.

For good reason. There’s no real indication that the blog post above was written by anyone other than Reid. The author is identified as “jreid.” Reid’s expert claimed that some entries showed evidence of having been “made up,” including “the times posted (times when Ms. Reid hosted her radio show), unusual structure and anomalies within the posts and ghosting around images.” The Hardaway post was published at 8:31 p.m.; Reid was on the air from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., according to an ad on the same page. There is also no indication of “unusual structure or anomalies” in the post.

What’s more, opposition to issues such as same-sex marriage was common at the time. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that only 37 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage in 2007, including only 26 percent of black Americans.

“As an African-American, you’re actually held to an even higher tolerance standard, which may or may not be fair,” Reid wrote in the Hardaway post. “But as [radio host Dan] LeBatard himself noted, what Hardaway said probably met with quiet, embarrassed agreement on some level by many other players, who are now looking to their left and right, and perhaps quietly, and uneasily, wondering if the guy showering next to them is sneaking a peek at their naughty bits. It’s not pretty, but it’s for real.”

That sentiment may have been true at the time, but it’s hard to escape the cringe-worthy way in which Reid describes it.

Having argued in December that her disparagement of Crist a decade ago was about hypocrisy, it’s hard for Reid to now accept having written at the same point in time that “homosexual sex is … well… gross” or that she “probably” was homophobic. So we get a tortured argument that the words aren’t hers. It didn’t convince the LGBT support organization PFLAG, which on Tuesday rescinded an award it had given to Reid.

All of this derives from one simple act: the Internet Archive having taken a snapshot of what was happening on the Web on Feb. 22, 2007. The Archive’s Wayback Machine has been instrumental in bringing to light the past arguments of a number of people elevated in the public eye in recent months; CNN’s KFILE team has built a cottage industry on unearthing past comments from advisers to and staffers in the Trump administration by rifling through the Wayback Machine and other resources.

What the Wayback Machine provides, in essence, is a third-party archiving service that largely escapes the influence of the content creators. If you publish a blog on a blogging platform (or a tweet on Twitter, etc.), you still have the power to go in and remove or alter what you’ve written. The Wayback Machine makes it much more difficult to cover your tracks, should you wish to. As more people who grew up creating content for the Web enter positions of authority in media and politics, that archive becomes more important.

If the Wayback Machine hadn’t indexed Reid’s site, her words might have been lost. Or if someone had stumbled onto her old blog post, her expert’s argument that the post was fraudulent in some way might carry more weight. But with that index timestamped more than a decade ago, the argument is substantially undercut.

Reid’s blog, though, is not currently available on the Wayback Machine. Her old blog updated the file on its server telling automated systems what can and can’t be indexed, a set of instructions that the Wayback Machine’s system respects as it gathers information from around the Web. By changing that file, Reid’s team essentially pulled a curtain down on her past writing.

A bit too late.


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