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Their cup runneth over…

I hadn’t glanced at my Tivo for about a week, busy with some programming projects, berry picking and general enjoyment of the New England summer. I checked the queue this evening and discovered six hours of sumo coverage from the late 1990s, the years when giants like Akebono dominated the sport. I just watched the mighty yokozuna destroy a young rikishi, and Kyokushuzan – one of my favorite rikishi of all time – is just beginning his career at the senior ranks.

In other words, my cup runneth over.

That seems to be how political reporters are feeling about the availability of “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s phone records. Louisiana Senator Senator David Vitter has already confessed to being a client of the brothel, a confession that may destroy his reputation as a “family values” conservative. It’s safe to say that there are hundreds of DC reporters hungry to find out whether there are other Senators, Representatives, Secretaries and other famous Washingtonians who can be publicly humiliated.

(Wow. Musashimaru as an Ozeki. He looks almost small facing Akebono…)

My friend and colleage Danny Silverman has been working to make their work a little easier. He’s part of a team that’s used optical character recognition to populate a searchable database of telephone numbers found in Palfrey’s phone records. The database, located at dcphonelist.com, contains 4434 numbers which made multiple calls of more than 1 minute to Ms Palfrey’s service.

Danny and his colleagues haven’t released any novel data – their site simply repackages data published on Palfrey’s site. But that repackaging is a very powerful tool for journalists – professional or otherwise. Instead of sorting through hundreds of pages of records, the DC Phone List site lets you enter in a phone number and see if the number in question appears in Palfrey’s records. I have to assume that every journalist who works in Washington is now cross-checking their address books on the site, looking for scandalous leads.

The site is carefully constructed so that it isn’t making it easy for an individual to access all 4,400 numbers… though Danny and friends have that data and certainly could release it. You’ve got to enter a full 10-digit number to see if it’s in the database. Danny tells me that people have already started writing simple scripts that check long lists of numbers – the site now only permits 50 requests a day from the same IP in the hopes of slowing people down.

Danny’s got an excellent post up wondering about the ethical issues that surround making a tool like this available. He points out that citizen journalists don’t always make the right calls as concerns releasing information that hasn’t been properly fact-checked:

A little while back tech blog Engadget published a huge “scoop” about delays in Apple’s product offerings. Stock markets moved on the news. Chaos was caused. It was a hoax. The tiniest bit of vetting, the smallest phone call or email follow-up would have revealed the hoax and stopped the virtual presses, but Engadget was more excited about their scoop than they were worried about printing the truth.

By way of contrast, Danny points to ABC News, which may have had access to the list in May, but which constrained the release of the information:

They found a lot of interesting info, according to various accounts, but very little that they considered so important to the public discourse that it was worth publishing. You can ruin lives, after all. Some would argue the person who broke the law and called the escort service in the first place did their own life ruining. But still. ABC knew they had something powerful, and they treated it with due reverence.

What’s a bit odd about this is that DCPhoneList seems custom-made for life ruining. It doesn’t make it especially easy for journalists to find all phone numbers from the White House that are in the database, but it makes it very easy for a nervous spouse to check a partner’s mobile number. If checking up on your mate were as difficult as wading through pages of phone records, perhaps you’d give it a pass… but what if it’s as simple as entering a single number into a web form?

Not that journalists are above wading through pages of phone records. David Corn of The Nation has been deep diving into phone records, finding intriguing possible links to the late Senator Moynihan, and asking his readers to help him scour Congresstional directories to figure out who made a call in 1999 from 202-224-9557. It’s an interesting experiment in crowdsourcing, I suppose, but I’m not sure the benefit to the public good that would come from knowing who made a two minute long conversation to a house of ill-repute eight years ago.

Then again, schadenfreude is some people’s cup of tea. There’s certainly some bloggers celebrating the fact that the first of the Madam’s clients outed are a Republican Senator and a Republican lobbyist. But I’ve got high hopes that the sort of work Danny and friends are doing will be applied to slightly more journalistic stories in the near future. Crowdsourcing is demonstrating its value in helping journalists and advocacy organizations cope with “document drops” – the EFF is asking supporters to help them plow through a thousand documents they received from the FBI through a FOIA request, for instance. Having good databases of the documents released in these sorts of requests is great news, even if it’s not quite as titilating as discovering who paid what to sleep with whom.

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