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1998-05-07 11:06:55


Washington Post Economist Admits: Media Have Ignored Y2K



Robert Samuelson has admitted in his column that the media have ignored y2k for too long. Economist Ed Yardeni's assessment of a 60% chance of a 1974-75 type recession caught Samuelson's attention.

The President and Vice President have been quiet, too, he says.

He admits that he is leaning toward alarmism. He has talked with computer specialists. On the record, they say, "It's a problem, but not an insurmountable problem." Off the record, they are worried about doomsday.

This article indicates that the shift in the media has come. The WASHINGTON POST is the big time. Samuelson is a major commentator. He writes for NEWSWEEK, too. It took a long time, but y2k media awareness is here. Commentators are beginning to see the extent of the problem. This will lead to more stories on the problem.

It will take time for the story to register in people's minds. But, month by month, the number of reports will escalate: factual, then worried, then panic-driven. In 1999, the number of y2k stories will be like a flood. That flood will bring the banking panic, which could easily begin in Japan.

Don't lose your present advantage. You know what's coming. Get out of the way before it hits.

* * * * * * * * *

I plead guilty to journalistic incompetence for ignoring what may be one of the decade's big stories: the Year 2000 problem. Among technical types, it's shortened to the Y2K problem (K stands for thousand) and refers to the dangers of computers that can't recognize the new century. Economist Edward Yardeni of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, who has studied the problem, rates the odds that it will trigger a deep recession at 60 percent. He fears something ranking with the 1974-75 slump, the second worst since World War II. In 1975 unemployment averaged 8.5 percent.

Even this doesn't convey the everyday disruptions that could conceivably fray society's fabric. In our computer-dependent world, here are some possibilities: failed telephone systems; power brownouts; a hobbled air traffic control system; uncheckable credit cards; faulty billing systems; delayed tax refunds. No one knows whether these and other bad things will happen; but no one knows that they won't, either.

We in the press have not taken this seriously. In my ineptness, I have plenty of company: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post (until recent weeks), Time, Newsweek and Business Week, just to mention a few news giants. Despite occasional stories, we haven't portrayed this as a truly threatening development that may not be "fixed" on time. Our failure amplifies the larger lapses of political leaders.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore project themselves as cyber boosters; they love photo-ops with students at computers. But they've virtually neglected the Y2K problem. . . .

The House subcommittee on government management, information and technology, chaired by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), estimates that the federal government has almost 8,000 "mission critical" computer systems and that only 35 percent are now prepared for the year 2000. At the present rate, the committee projects that only 63 percent will make it. Most disturbing is the estimate that only about a quarter of the Defense Department's 2,900 systems are now ready. Among private companies, readiness also seems spotty. The head of of General Motors' information systems recently told Fortune magazine that the company is working feverishly to rectify "catastrophic problems" at its plants. . . .

When the year hits 2000, the date becomes "00." Consider the potential havoc. A computer subtracts 98 (1998) from 99 (1999) and gets 1. On a loan, that's a year's worth of interest. Now the computer tries to subtract 99 (1999) from 00 (2000). Perhaps it won't compute -- or perhaps it gets 99 years. On a loan, that's 99 years of interest. The FAA reports that its radar has a date mechanism to regulate a critical coolant. If the software isn't fixed, "the cooling system will not turn on at the correct time . . . and the [radar] could overheat and shut down."

Potential glitches like this abound. No one knows how many there are. . . .

For the press, I grasp the difficulties of covering this story. It's mostly hypothetical. Until we have a corpse, we don't know whether there's been a murder. Some credit cards expiring in "00" already have been rejected; still, it won't be until around 2000 that we can truly say whether this is a big or small problem. Anyone writing about it now is shoved uneasily toward one of two polar positions: reassuring complacency (fixes will be made); or hysterical alarmism (the world will collapse). The story is also full of technical details that bore and baffle most journalists. As for our cyber buffs, they've generally been too busy surfing the Net and writing about Bill Gates to notice.

But it could turn out that Y2K matters much more than Microsoft. I lean toward alarmism simply because all the specialists I contacted last week -- people actually involved with fixing the computers -- are alarmed. On the record, they say the problem is serious and the hour is late. Their cheeriest view is that "no one knows" what will happen. Off the record, they incline toward Doomsday. One talks of a "Frankenstein"; another confesses that he'll stockpile prescription drugs and make physical copies of his financial records. Everyone believes that progress abroad is less than in the United States. . . .

We depend on the smooth flow of information. Interruptions will harm the economy. If fixed quickly, they will be mere inconveniences. If not, they will sow uncertainty, destroy confidence and sap society's sense of control. We can deny the possibilities and pray they don't materialize. Or we can pay attention and hope to minimize them. Either way, the year 2000 won't wait.


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