BOB GARFIELD: The phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called "D.C. Madam", have already claimed some victims, notably former State Department official Randall Tobias and Louisiana senator David Vitter. But there are thousands of phone numbers on the list and no shortage of curiosity about whether Palfrey's call girls got inside the belt of other inside-the-Beltway luminaries.
Enter then Dcphonelist.com, a handy tool enabling users to type in a phone number - let's say your congressman - or your husband - to see if it's in Palfrey's records. When the process yields a hit, no doubt some lives will get complicated, but is Dcphonelist legitimate journalism? And if it isn't journalism, what exactly is it?
Daniel Silverman is a Cambridge, Massachusetts, systems designer and the website's creator. He joins me now. Daniel, welcome to OTM. DANIEL SILVERMAN: Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: How did you find yourself getting involved with Dcphonelist.com? DANIEL SILVERMAN: When the records were released, it seemed like an interesting challenge for people with computer skills to do a little work to make what is really an almost useless resource - thousands of pages of very difficult-to-read text of AT&T phone bills - and turn it into something that normal citizens and journalists could perhaps get some information out of. BOB GARFIELD: Well, let me just back up on this a bit, because when the records were first released by Palfrey, they were given to ABC News, which found Randall Tobias' name on the list, I believe, ultimately resulting in his resignation from the State Department. But they declined, did ABC News, to release any of the other names of notables who they may have found there, presumably because they thought that none of the names reached the threshold of newsworthiness.
And I guess that's the ongoing ethical question for a news organization in possession of information that could really damage someone's not only career but entire life. This takes that question out of the hands of the media filter and puts it directly into the hands of individuals who may have no such ethical qualms. Did you give any thought to that before you actually built the website? DANIEL SILVERMAN: ABC News was given a portion of the records. And while they made choices not to expose certain people or certain information because they didn't think it reached the level of newsworthiness, I think a lot of local journalists, citizen journalists and the public at large might not necessarily agree with the decisions they made or might find new or better or more useful information in the data because there are so many more eyes poring over it. BOB GARFIELD: Throwing this tool out to individuals creates the possibility for all sort of mischief. Have you seen any evidence of that mischief yet? DANIEL SILVERMAN: We haven't yet seen any evidence of mischief. We've had a few people contact us, asking to have their numbers removed from the list, telling us that they were misdials or something else. When you - BOB GARFIELD: Well, hold on a second. I got to interrupt. [LAUGHS] If it were, in fact, a misdial, how would they have known to look to see if it was [LAUGHING] there? Just kind of curious about that. DANIEL SILVERMAN: It's a very interesting question. And we certainly see in the usage of the site that a lot of the visitors who are getting hits, who are actually finding numbers, come from Capitol Hill. A lot of them are major law firms. And it's interesting how many correct hits they're getting on the first or second try, finding a phone number in the database. We haven't gotten a lot of random person-in-the-middle-of-nowhere getting hits. BOB GARFIELD: I guess, you know, just on a personal level, it seems to me that you have so many skills [LAUGHS], and there are so many opportunities to use data-mining tools, and that the primary attraction of this, apart from any issues of hypocrisy, is just, you know, sort of tawdry. It's juicy, but kind of trivial compared to other things that you might be using your technology to uncover. Am I just being a whiner? DANIEL SILVERMAN: In this case, you may not think that what we're doing has as much journalistic integrity as Karl Rove's emails or of Enron documents, but I think it's just a first step. And I think it shows that this is going to keep happening, and every time data is released there are going to be more and better tools developed to analyze that data, for anyone to analyze that data.
And so, while this data may not reach the level that some people consider to be highly important, I think that the philosophy behind it and what we're trying to do is very applicable to a wide range of issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's a good answer. Daniel, I thank you very much for joining us. DANIEL SILVERMAN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Web designer Daniel Silverman helped created Dcphonelist.com. After our interview, Silverman emailed to say a blogger had used the website to identify a prominent Wisconsin lobbyist - quote, "exactly the sort of thing we'd hoped would happen." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Philips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Madeleine Elish and Andrya Ambro. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
But before we go on, a word or two about Tony Field who has consistently put OTM ahead of the curve with his incisive analysis of the week's coverage: he's leaving the radio side of the show this week. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He'll abide with us a little longer, improving the website, so expect great things there. But it will be very, very hard to fill the space he's leaving here. We'll miss you. You don't know how much, Tony.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program, download our podcasts, find transcripts and post comments at onthemedia.org, or email us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. ***** [MUSIC TAG](FUNDING CREDITS) *****