An Unseen Innovator of Email Technology, and a Crisis of Conscience for the News Biz

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The film and commercial director Errol Morris had a brother who died young, at the age of 40, in the early 1980s. A highlight of Noel Morris' short life was an important, if largely unknown, role in the development of the first email program. In a five-post series (don't be afraid; it reads fast!) for The New York Times Opinionator blog, Errol weaves together an appreciation of his older brother with a portrait of the MIT of the 1960s and '70s, when computing innovation was for most who bothered an academic pursuit rather than a financial one.

Consisting mainly of transcripts of phone interviews with the little-known players in an important moment in communications, Mr. Morris' series is a knife in the side of the Great Men Theory of History that dominates our understanding of the technological past. It's not just the multibillionaires like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who got us where we are. There were plenty of little guys who lived lives of endless coding sessions in forgotten programming languages for little reward and now exist only in the mists of history.

I remember the day. We were living in this nightmare apartment building on Seventh Avenue and 54th Street . Over the Stage Deli. Julia, my wife, had called my mother to get her recipe for potato pancakes. I had gone to my office on Broadway, about a block away. Julia called me and told me my brother had died. I immediately took the train to my mother's house and stayed with her for the next 10 days.

It was all a blur. I had never seen my mother like that . She was one of the strongest people I have ever known. But she was inconsolable. And I was angry, but I didn't know at whom.

The funeral was in Brookline, Mass., at the Levine Chapel. I knew that my brother had friends, but he worked unendingly, and I was worried that nobody would be there for the funeral. There was my mother, my stepfather, and my two step-brothers and step-sister. And, literally, hundreds of people. It was absolutely filled. People were standing in the back. I had the picture of my brother as isolated. Julia asked me, "How did they all find out?" And I said, "They communicate with each other using computers."

There's yet another crisis of conscience for the news business, this one forced by Jose Antonio Vargas, who was shaping as one of American journalism brightest stars until he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant who had rather easily hoodwinked a number of employers that also happened to be some of the truth-gathering business' most important institutions. (Somehow, and alarmingly, he also seemed to give the Secret Service the slip.) The sort of chicanery that goes on so the undocumented can partake in the American dream goes on every day, and Mr. Vargas' revelation is notable, of course, only because he fooled the likes of the Washington Post, where he shared in a Pulitzer win, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His essay set off a bit of pondering about the role of personal honesty for a journalist. Does it matter that an apparently accurate and otherwise ethical journalist lied? For Slate's self-described "immigration dove" Jack Shafer, it does:

I get on my high horse about Vargas' lies because reporter-editor relationships are based on trust. A news organization can't function if editors must constantly cross-examine their reporters in search of deliberate lies. I'm more disturbed with Vargas for lying to the Washington Post Co. (which -- disclosure alert! -- employs me) than I am about him breaking immigration law. His lies to the Post violated the compact that makes journalism possible. It also may have put the company on the hook for violating immigration law, which slaps employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants with legal sanctions and fines. This may be the case in the Vargas episode: In his story, he writes of telling one Post manager about his immigration status, and that manager, Peter Perl, took no action.

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Follow Matthew Creamer on Twitter: @matt_creamer

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