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Christiane Amanpour: Reporting On Genocide
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. My guest, Christiane Amanpour, is CNN's chief international correspondent. In 25 years with the network, she's interviewed countless world leaders and covered war, famine and disaster around the globe. Her reporting has won numerous awards, including this year's Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club, its highest honor for excellence in journalism.
Next year, Amanpour will host her own nightly news program on CNN International. An edited version of the program will air on weekends on CNN's U.S. channel, and on December 4th, her latest documentary will premiere on CNN. Called "Scream Bloody Murder," it chronicles six cases of genocidal violence over the past 80 years and honors those who tried to call the world's attention to the killing. In this scene from "Scream Bloody Murder," Amanpour reports on the genocide in Darfur in Sudan.
(Soundbite of documentary "Scream Bloody Murder")
Ms. CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR (Chief International Correspondent, CNN): In Darfur, the UN estimates 300,000 people have been killed in the fighting or died in the ensuing disease and starvation. Another 2.5 million have been uprooted from their homes. They're worried about who will look after them. I reported how the toll is heaviest on the women, on the weak, and especially on the very young.
Mr. MUKESH KAPILA (UN Official): What happened in Darfur would be classified obscene.
Ms. AMANPOUR: You're angry.
Mr. KAPILA: I am angry at having presided over the first genocide of the 21st century.
DAVIES: That was UN Official Mukesh Kapila speaking to Christiane Amanpour in her CNN Special on Genocide. I spoke to Amanpour yesterday.
Christiane Amanpour, welcome to Fresh Air. You know, of the six episodes of genocidal violence which are chronicled in your documentary, you, I believe, personally covered three of them, in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. And in Bosnia, you were a reporter then, and you were, I guess, in your 30s. And of course, you'd covered war before, and there are atrocities in every war. I wonder, was there a point in covering that conflict at which you realized what was happening there was different, that this wasn't the violence of war, that this was something apart?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, the answer is yes. It took me a while. I was in my early 30s. It was my second significant story as a foreign correspondent. I'd just come from covering the first Gulf War. And literally, months after that, Yugoslavia exploded. Now, the first Gulf War was traditional. It was armies against armies. It was designed to expel Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. That was war as we understand it.
This was a civil war, as people wanted to tell us. We got there seeing that in the Republic of Bosnia, for instance, there were Serbs and Croats and Muslims fighting against each other. But what quickly became apparent once you'd spent more than a few days there - and we did, week after week, month after month, year after year - that this was not just a dirty civil war, as our leaders tried to tell us or as the aggressors tried to tell us, the Serbs led by the Yugoslav leadership; that this was not just centuries of ethnic hatred exploding into the open with all sides equally guilty; that this, in fact, was a planned campaign of ethnic cleansing, at the very least, and genocide at the worst.
So we quickly understood that there were prepared, planned, heavily armed aggressors fighting by shelling from the hills and sniping a civilian population who were by and large Muslims.
DAVIES: I wondered, as the Bosnian Serbs' atrocities against the Muslims increased and the West did not act, I'm wondering what kind of conversations you'd had with your editors about what kind of reporting you did, the kind of play it got on the network?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, precisely this conversation because there was some concern about are we being, you know, fair? And that's why I had to explain what I figured out, that when we're confronted with this, we have to report the truth, that objectivity means reporting the truth. It doesn't mean causing a false equivalent or saying on the one hand this, on the other hand that. It doesn't mean equating victim with aggressor.
But if we do that, we're then accomplices. And in this kind of situation, we're accomplices to genocide. And I, for one, was not going to go that route and nor were any of my colleagues there. But I will tell you that we had enormous support from our network. We had enormous ability to get this story out, and it made a difference, I believe.
At that time, CNN played the story in the A Block, in other words, at the top of each new cycle, for weeks and months and years. It was on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times. I could name every newspaper in the United States around the world. It was the major story. And I strongly believe that that contributed to eventual intervention by the United States and its NATO allies.
Eventually, when the massacre happened at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, that was one massacre too far for the international community. It took a long time. It was too long. Too many hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. But eventually, they did intervene to stop the war successfully, to lead a diplomatic offensive to bring peace - that was successful, and then to have a peace enforcement regime with NATO forces, and that was successful and held to this day. And I believe the reporting across the board by everybody who was there contributed to that.
DAVIES: You know, one of the themes of this documentary is highlighting those who, as you say, screamed bloody murder, who tried to call attention to genocidal atrocities as they occurred. But you note in the documentary that the first two that you report on, the Nazi Holocaust and the killings in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, occurred by and large outside of the public eye. They were known to some but not widely reported on. The later genocides were, in fact, heavily covered, and I think particularly of the massacres in Rwanda, and still, you note, those with the power to act often didn't.
What conclusions did you reach about the extent to which shining a light on these acts of brutality can help stop them?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, I do believe shining a light can help stop them. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it still works. Let me just walk you through it. We've shone a light, year after year, minute after minute in Bosnia. And I strongly believe that even though it was late, intervention came and it was successful. It was the right thing to do. Peace is held to this day. Then came Kosovo, another Balkan province, just a couple of years later. And at that time, both President Clinton and Tony Blair organized and led a coalition to intervene in Kosovo before it turned into genocide.
I don't think there was that critical mass of reporting in Rwanda. Journalists were scattered all over at that time. There was some excellent reporting but not enough to cause a tipping point of public reaction and intervention by the rest of the world. And I'll tell you what I mean.
At that time, there were good new stories happening in Africa. For instance, Nelson Mandela was about to be elected the first black president of Africa in the post - of South Africa - in the post-apartheid era. Bosnia was still going on. Many of the world's correspondents were still in Bosnia. In the United States, OJ Simpson, that trial was sucking up all the oxygen. And unfortunately, people were able to just sit and, you know, zone out watching that instead of focusing on what was going on in Rwanda.
And I believe that that enabled leadership, which didn't want to intervene, not to intervene. And you know, in three months, 800,000 to one million Rwandans were slaughtered.
DAVIES: You know, for decades, at least, I mean, since the Nazi Holocaust, so many people have pondered the question of how human beings could inflict this unthinkable brutality on other human beings, particularly innocent ones. In one of your interviews with Elie Wiesel, the chronicler of the Holocaust, he says that they used to wonder how could they kill children, referring to the Nazis. And having seen this occur again and again, I wonder, after doing these interviews with people who have suffered this, people, in some cases, who inflicted the violence, and those who tried to stop it, do you feel you're any closer, personally, to an understanding of that, how this could happen?
Ms. AMANPOUR: I don't think I'm any closer to an understanding. Elie Wiesel, of course, was a child when he was in Auschwitz, and he survived, and he has spent his life making sure that the world never forgets. And he tried also to mobilize the Clinton administration early on to intervene because one of the images of Bosnia, for instance, was of children being amongst the targets, children who were being walked to school or whose mothers were walking them to collect water from a pipe, you know, in the street, or who had to go to the market.
They were literally being targeted through a sniper's sight, and their heads were being blown off. I remember once doing a report on a little girl, and I remember to this day what her name was, Amella(ph). And there wasn't enough letters left at the funeral parlors in Sarajevo to actually spell out her whole name. I think it was the A that they had run out of. And I simply - I'm a mother, and I cannot believe it when I see that. And I think, for me - and I'm sure for everybody - that is the most emotional thing when you see children who are deliberately attacked, or even if you go and you report famine or any other crisis or disaster and you see helpless children who are the victims. And again, not caught in the crossfire, Dave. These are deliberately targeted.
DAVIES: There's an incredible moment in this documentary at which you were in Rwanda some years after the massacres there. And you sit with a woman who prepares a meal for you and a man who had killed, what? Five of her children. Tell us about that moment, please.
Ms. AMANPOUR: We went to tell the story of Iphigenia, who had seen her husband and five of her children killed during the genocide there. And we went to her house because we knew, we'd been told, that she was one of those who somehow had found it in her heart to forgive. She'd gone through this local gatchacha(ph) process where the aggressor, where the man who had killed her family, had confessed in front of her and in front of the community.
But this man, Jean-Bosco Bizimana, had been a neighbor. He was a Hutu. She was a Tutsi. And when the genocide started, he was amongst those who had been mobilized to kill Tutsis, including her family. And, yet, somehow, she had managed to forgive. I kept asking her how, and she said, nothing is going to bring the dead back, and I'm a Christian, and I believe in forgiveness.
And we sat with her that Sunday after going to church with her, coming home, watching her prepare a really nice meal for this man who had killed her family.
DAVIES: What did you observe of their interaction? Did she seem to be able to connect with him as a neighbor, as a friend?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Yes. Yes. They were talking. There wasn't much laughter, as you can imagine. There was a quiet sense of getting on with it. She talked to this man. They talked about everyday mundane things. She was closer to his wife, and it was the wife who persuaded the husband to come and apologize and to take part in this community court system to beg forgiveness. And since then, this community, this family, is moving on.
It also happens to be the national policy. Reconciliation is the national policy in Rwanda right now, so this is what's happening in many towns and villages. It is, though, absolutely extraordinary to witness. And you just can't help but feel, oh, my goodness, what if there's another explosion? How will this play out again? Because remember, when you ask, how could these people do it, a collective madness does take over but it's one that doesn't just happen out of the ether.
They are mobilized by radio, by their leaders, by their communities to go out and kill their so-called enemies. In this case, the Hutus were told that Tutsis were cockroaches. They were told kill, kill, kill, on the radio. All the time, these messages were going out during the genocide. And don't just leave the adults. Kill the children, too, so that they can never come back and threaten us again.
And it was graphic orders coming from the radio, the television and the militia leaders of how to kill, and it makes people mad. It sends them into mad, murderous frenzies, and that's what happened.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Christiane Amanpour. She is the chief international correspondent for CNN. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
If you're just joining us, our guest is Christiane Amanpour. She has just celebrated 25 years at CNN, where she is the chief international correspondent. She will soon be hosting her own show on CNN International.
You know, so many people are interested in your background. As I understand, your mother was British, your father was an Iranian airline executive. Is that right?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Yep, and they still are. They're both alive. My mom's English. My father's Iranian. I grew up in Iran, and I grew up throughout my childhood and adolescence, and when I was 20 years old, there was a revolution, as the world knows, in 1979. The Islamic Revolution swept Iran. And to this day, there's an Islamic theocracy in power under the Ayatollahs there. And Iran, of course, has always been very much in the news.
Saying all this just to say that I was old enough during that revolution to understand and to be interested in what was going on even though it affected my family very deeply, it changed our lives. Many of our friends and family were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. And yet, that's what put me on the path to journalism. And I wanted to be a foreign correspondent to tell precisely those stories and to try to explain to the world some of these seismic happenings that affect all of our lives.
DAVIES: So you went to the States, went to the University of Rhode Island, and then, as I understand it, started at CNN 25 years ago - as what, a desk assistant or an assistant producer?
Ms. AMANPOUR: That's right. After Iran, I thought I wanted to come to the United States where I'd heard that if you work hard, you have a dream, you have a passion, you can make it. And I did go to the University of Rhode Island, which I really thoroughly enjoyed. I had a great time. I went to Atlanta, joined CNN right out of college, just about, with my bicycle, my suitcase, about $100 or so in my pocket.
And when I got there, the executive who was in charge of recruiting, he said to me, oh, Christiane, you're foreign? We've got an opening on the foreign desk. Let's put you there. And I thought this was just fantastic because I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. And I was a desk assistant, which was the lowest-level entry position there, and I did a lot of things like getting coffee and food for my boss. And I also was very fortunate to be able to talk to the reporters around the world for CNN, on the phone, to transcribe their scripts and put them in the computer so our writers and anchors knew what they were writing.
And that sort of set me on my way to really wanting to be a foreign correspondent. I worked many, many hours on my own time. I learned how to write for the anchors first and then to write reports. Then I started to become a reporter. And in 1990, I got my first assignment as a foreign correspondent, and it just happened to be ahead of the first Gulf War, and that was my first major story. So just as CNN was exploding internationally, I got my first chance, and it was great.
DAVIES: You know, you were a desk assistant in Atlanta, to begin with, at CNN. There are a lot of desk assistants who never get anywhere. I mean, you clearly had something that others didn't. And I'm wondering, when you actually got out into the field and had to not just kind of write news from wire services or what you heard over the phone from other correspondents but to actually go out and report it, can you describe what was different about it, what the different skills that you had to employ - where there's a moment which you realized, wow, this is really something completely different?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Yeah. I had a drive and a passion and a mission and a deep sense of knowing what I wanted to do. So when I did finally get the chance, and I lobbied, lobbied like anything to be a foreign correspondent even when I had no business being one because I really, you know, didn't know as much as I should. Anyway, I filled a series of dead men's shoes and eventually got overseas.
DAVIES: What do you mean by fill a series of dead men's shoes?
Ms. AMANPOUR: A series of people who either didn't want the job or were leaving the job or whatever it was that enabled me to take advantage of that empty position and get in. And then I got my first job as a foreign correspondent because those who'd been asked to do this job didn't want to go to that particular bureau that was being offered. So I said, I'll go, and I got the job. I think it was a bit of desperation on CNN's part, but thank God - ha ha - thank God because, you know, it was my first opportunity, and I grabbed it with both hands and feet.
DAVIES: You, as you said, try and get to the bottom of things and try to get stories of ordinary people. And there's an incident that I believe you once mentioned in a speech where you were doing a live report from Ethiopia or Somalia about famine and realized at some point that the man whose story you were telling, who was live on camera, was dying.
Ms. AMANPOUR: Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us about that a moment.
Ms. AMANPOUR: It was in Somalia. And again, I was still a very young reporter. I was 32 or something. And it was in 1992 - maybe I was a bit older than that - and it was my first time exposed to deprivation on a scale that I had never seen and could never imagine. These people in Somalia were being starved to death, and it wasn't by natural circumstances. It was because of war and civil war, manmade. In any event, then-President George Bush had sent forces in to relieve the famine, and it worked, actually, thank goodness.
And we reporters went to wherever we could to document, to witness, to take pictures, and we ended up in one of these feeding camps where refugees were coming in - refugees meaning Somalis, who were crawling in to try to get a bit of gruel to survive on. And at the time, my camerawoman and I - Cindy Strand and I - were in this tent where a group of Somalis were weak and lying and being tended to, lying on the ground.
And I was talking to the physician there, and I had started talking to one of the victims, one of the people who he was treating who was obviously weak, but he had been able to say a few words. And all of a sudden, I saw that he was not going to make it. His eyes started to roll back, his chest started to deflate, his head started to fall onto his chest, and I knew what was happening, and I couldn't move. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know whether to bang the camera and turn it around, whether to stand in front of it, whether to stop, whether to continue.
It was so awful, and it was something that to this day I can feel it and I can see it as I'm telling you. And in the end, I think that I just sort of slowly moved out of camera - out of range of the camera - and it followed me, got off this person, and I continued to tell the story, and that's what I did.
DAVIES: And he didn't make it. He died.
Ms. AMANPOUR: No. He died.
DAVIES: Christiane Amanpour. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, back with Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent. On December 4th, her documentary on genocide will premiere on CNN, and next year she'll have her own nightly news show on CNN International. Amanpour has spent 25 years at the network, much of it covering famine, war and natural disasters around the world.
You've seen so much death and tragedy, and I wonder how you deal with it emotionally? Do you compartmentalize it? I mean, I mean I know you feel it's so important to bring these stories. On the other hand, it must - it must take a toll, in some way.
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, I think it does take a toll. If it didn't take a toll, I wouldn't be a human being. I'm not ashamed to say it takes a toll. I think that the way I try to deal with it is I have a very strong family. I have a very strong group of friends. I'm not shy about talking about it, although I'm very aware that not many people want to hear about this stuff. It is too horrible, so you just talk, you know, with a few people about it.
But I put my passion and my energy and my heart into telling the stories. In other words, I don't let it eat me up. I tell the stories with a passion that I hope does justice to those people who've told me their stories and to those people whose situations I've witnessed. And I strongly believe that what motivates me and that keeps me from being eaten up by this is a deep sense of - a deep belief that by telling these stories it will make a difference.
DAVIES: You know, now that - you know, CNN has had around-the-clock news for a long time, but now you have most major news organizations with Web sites that are updated minute by minute and bloggers who are out there providing on-the-spot accounts, and then that leads to instant analysis on the air on your's and other competing cable stations. And I'm wondering, do you think that the headlong rush to get information and analysis on the air so quickly, ahead of everyone else, has led to superficial or even misleading reporting about things? Are you troubled by that tendency, the acceleration of news and analysis?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Yes, because I think the brain only works at a certain speed anyway. But I do think that it does contribute to basically talking off the top of your head. I think basically that the technology is fantastic. The delivery platforms are superb. The ability to get stories of importance or just plain interesting stories from one corner of the globe to another instantly is really amazing.
I think, however, that we mustn't confuse understanding with just plain information. I think that we mustn't confuse the ability to comprehend and to know the context of what's going on with the speed of the delivery system. And I think that's something that we really should start looking at very, very carefully because it's great to have all these delivery systems, but we need to talk about content as well. What is it that we're putting out there? There is a time to get all that news out. And then there is a time to talk about it, to consider it, to put it in context, to get the perspective, different perspectives, to try to go a bit deeper.
I think what the correspondents - certainly, what CNN did during this unbelievable siege in Mumbai over the last several days was phenomenal. We got the news out very, very quickly and did it very, very well. But in the intervening days, you know, some of the precepts that people sort of started thinking and that were taken as gospel are looking a little bit thin. For instance, you know, everybody was told that it was just Americans and British that these hostage takers, terrorists were going after.
Ms. AMANPOUR: But the reality, of course, is that there was indiscriminate firing in many, many locations; that yes, there were foreigners who were killed but the majority of the people who were killed were Indians. So, you know, these cliches that get repeated over and over again by people who are rushing to just fill air has to be looked at.
DAVIES: And speculation about the nature of things that you don't understand. For example, the nature of the attackers in this case, I mean...
Ms. AMANPOUR: That's correct.
DAVIES: Experts get on the air. They don't have much information, but they immediately began speculating about where they may have come from.
Ms. AMANPOUR: That's correct. And again, speculation has to be labeled as speculation. In any event, I think we should do much less of that than we do. And there are other things you can do to fill air. For instance, you could, God forbid, go to India by satellite, wherever you are sitting in a studio, and actually get a group of people from there, experts from there, to tell you about their best knowledge about what's going on. You could - there's a huge pool of people and information that you can draw on just to fill air.
DAVIES: Well, of course, real reporting is expensive. And I wanted to quote from a speech that you gave in 2000. You'd received the Edward R. Murrow Award. And you addressed the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and this is according to a text of the speech, and I'm editing a little just for time, but you said: What we do and say and show really matters. Yet, the powers that be, the moneymen, have decided to eviscerate us. It actually costs a little bit of money to produce good journalism. But God forbid money should be spent on our news operations pursuing quality. For the most part, as we've seen, it's just a lot of demeaning, irrelevant, super-hyped sensationalism. Our parent companies and corporations are raking in the profits. Yes, you are running the business, and yes, we understand and accept that, but surely there must be a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent.
Ms. AMANPOUR: Did I say all that?
DAVIES: Well, according to a text of the speech.
Ms. AMANPOUR: No, I did. It was in the year 2000 and...
DAVIES: And I'm interested in the reaction that you got.
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, the reaction was positive. I mean, I'm sure there are some people who think I'm a major you-know-what. But the reaction overall was very positive, particularly amongst my colleagues and those of us who believe that actually good journalism is good business and not necessarily the reverse. I strongly believe - and I'll say it over and over again to my dying day - that good storytelling, that good reporting, that spending the resources on covering the news is good business. And that there is, I believe, a level above which it is simply impractical, indecent, immoral to hold news and information to a commercial standard as if it was just any other commercial consumer product.
Whether we're private organizations or not, I am motivated by a sense of public service. You know, maybe I have that in my DNA, being British and being - having a lot of the BBC in my head as I grew up, and I still listen to it. It's a public service. We owe our viewers information, correct information and analysis and to go and be the eyes and the ears. That is what our historical mandate is, and that's what we need to do. Otherwise, we will be irrelevant.
DAVIES: You've made it a point to talk to ordinary people and capture the stories of people affected by war and violence and famine. But you've also, of course, talked to a lot of world leaders. And one of the more famous interviews was in 2002 when the Israeli army had surrounded Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. You managed to get him on the phone for a live on-the-air interview. Do you want to tell us how you pulled that off?
Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, that's right. That was a terrible time when there had been a suicide bomb attack in Israel and a lot of people had been killed. It was in Netanya, and it was over Passover and a lot of people had been killed. And the response from the government of Ariel Sharon was to blast it back into the West Bank and basically barricaded Arafat and the Palestinian Authority into their compound. So, CNN actually got him on the phone and patched him through to me, as I was doing a lot of live reports and anchoring and an enormous amount of work on the air that few days.
Anyway, so we got Yasser Arafat on the phone, and I basically started by asking him the obvious question. So, you know, what about those terrorists who went in there? I mean, how can you not control them? And he just lost it. He just accused me of being a shill(ph) for the Israeli government, and how can you talk to me like this? And I am General Arafat, and who do you think you are? And goodbye, boom, and he hung up. And you know, I went every shade of beetroot red on the air. I tried very hard not to lose my composure, and I just said, well, there, you see the kind of pressure he's under. We'll be back in a minute. And I think we went to a break.
DAVIES: And did you speak to him again after that?
Ms. AMANPOUR: I didn't, actually. No, I didn't. He didn't - no, I didn't do another interview with him, and I never got to interview the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, either.
DAVIES: Well, Christiane Amanpour, I want to wish you good success with the new show, and thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Ms. AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, Dave.
DAVIES: Christiane Amanpour. She'll host a nightly program on CNN International next year. Her documentary on genocide called "Scream Bloody Murder" premieres on CNN December 4th. Coming up, inside the search engine giant Google. This is Fresh Air.
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A Voyage To 'Planet Google'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
What do you call a company that, in less than ten years, grew from practically nothing to a $225 billion high-tech enterprise, giving its employees free rides to work, subsidized childcare, and discount bike repairs, hair cuts and oil changes? It's Google, and Randall Stross' book about the search engine giant includes many measures of its size and reach. Here's one: By 2006, the company's data centers consumed more electricity than all the television sets in America.
Google's had to cut back on some of its employee perks lately. But Stross' book focuses less on Google's size and wealth than on its ambition to collect and organize virtually all the information in the world - from news stories, to maps, to videos, to every book ever published. Randall Stross writes the "Digital Domain" column for the New York Times and is the author of "The Wizard of Menlo Park, eBoys, and the Microsoft Way." His new book is called "Planet Google."
Well, Randall Stross, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's talk a little bit about Google's core business and that is, of course, Web searches. Now, I'm at computer here, and I'm going to type in your name in a Google search. And within a second, it gives me a list of 45,000 Web pages that have either Randall or Stross. Now, is it possible to describe in layman's terms what happens when we execute a Google search?
Mr. RANDALL STROSS (Journalist; Author, "Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know"): When you put in your search phrase and the results come up and it tells you how long it took - by that way, how long did that take? Does it say?
DAVIES: 0.12 seconds.
Mr. STROSS: Which may seem like a very, very fast time, given it looks like it has searched the entire Web and come back with results. It should be remembered that that time is only measuring the time it takes for Google to look at its copy of the Web and its index and then come back with the answers. So its index may or may not be fully current. Its spider goes out and collects copies of Web pages continuously, but that's not what it's doing when we send in a search request.
DAVIES: So, what it's doing then is it's really searching not the Web, but the copies of millions and millions of Web pages that it has accumulated in Google's electronic library where it can sort through them quickly.
Mr. STROSS: Right. It recently announced that it had passed the one trillion-page milestone. And what it does once it collects those pages is it looks at how they link to one another. The core of the Google algorithm is to make an educated guess about which pages are most likely to be useful. And the many things that it takes into account include how many times does a page from some other site put a link to that page? And before you can judge whether these outside links are valuable, you then have to look at what links to those pages. So you have to keep working your way outward, checking the references of the references and then the references of the references of the references. But by doing so and tracing those connections outward, it can make a guess and say, this page seems to be accorded more importance than this other page.
DAVIES: And that's done by these incredibly complex mathematical formulas.
Mr. STROSS: That it does not release to the public.
DAVIES: One of the things that you write about in this book is that when Google scaled-up its Web browsing - its Web-searching infrastructure, unlike a lot of companies, it didn't rely on readymade hardware that was built and bought it off the shelf. It built its own stuff, and it built lots and lots and lots of it. And you describe that they have - I don't know, how many data centers across the country? Tell us a little bit about those places where the computers are whirring away in the middle of the night conducting our Web searches.
Mr. STROSS: Google runs a number of data centers that are filled with racks of computers, racks that have the innards of, essentially, our PCs, and each data center has copies of the entire Web and its indexes so that it can minimize the time it takes for your search to go to one of their data centers - they usually route it to the physically closest one to you - and come back with an answer. It turns out that as fast as the Internet uncongested can run, physical distance does matter, and the closer Google is able to locate a data center to you, the faster you get your results.
It faced a choice early on. It could buy equipment that was specifically engineered for running continuously, not failing and being the most reliable equipment, state-of-the-art equipment available. It chose not to use that category of equipment but instead build its own machines using off-the-shelf parts that are very inexpensive because they're the same parts go into our PCs. And it knew those components, because they're so cheap, are going to fail. You can count on them failing. But they developed software that builds in redundancy and allows the system to in essence detect and then route around any problem on the computer.
And since much of the computing can be distributed across many machines - so your search request, when it goes in, doesn't go to one machine. Imagine it this way: a portion of its search, let's say, when you typed in my name, it was going to look for the S-T-R part of my name, will go to one computer, the S-T-R, A through M, and then the other part will go through the S-T-R, N through Z listing, actually much smaller slices. So it could divide a request into many little slivers, send those out to many different machines, and then collect them all and package them into the results you're going to see on the screen. By distributing the work, it's able to speed up the response, and it's also able to have many backups in case any one of those should fail.
DAVIES: This company was formed by a couple of college guys, right? Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The lore is it started in a garage and then it grew and it grew and it grew and it grew, but one of the things that you write about is that a defining battle as the Internet came into being was the struggle between open and closed information, and that Google, in a way, took advantage of the fact that the Web became open. Give us an example of what you mean, open and closed.
Mr. STROSS: When Google started - and it really goes back to when the two co-founders were graduate students in computer science at Stanford, even before they decided to found the company, move off campus and rent a garage - their research was investigating the way links from one page could be analyzed to come up with an educated guess about the value of another page. And they had full access to the Web. No one blocked their software from going out and making copies of all available pages on the Web, and the Web was small enough, at the time, that it literally could fit on the hard drive of a single machine in their dorm room.
But at the same time, there was another, older model about how information should be made available online. And that's the AOL model, which said information is valuable, and you must pay a subscription in order to gain access. You had to become a member of a service. Now, in the early days, it wasn't clear why anyone would put up information to make it available for free if it didn't lead to someone paying a subscription fee. In the early days, advertising was not clearly going to support publishing on the Web. In fact, Google is going to be founded, and it's going to get about two years in before it becomes clear that advertising just may work out after all.
DAVIES: So it's open to everybody, and millions and millions of people provide content for free, and it's out there for Google to index and provide access to. But it's also made a fortune, and this is what's one of the most fascinating things about this story is that they happened upon what really is the most simple of notions which made a fortune. How did they make all their money?
Mr. STROSS: What has proven to be so valuable are the little plain-text ads that run on the side of a search results page or at the very top. Or, not quite as valuable, but also what has turned into big business are the Google ads, the Google supplies, other Web sites that are matched to whatever words happen to be on someone else's Web page. When Google began with those text ads, it was not sure that this would turn into a big business. At the same time, it was shopping around its search engine services, hoping to license their technology. That seemed at the time to be as promising a course for them as the little text ads.
But what turned out was those text ads were incredibly effective because they are linked to what was on the mind of the searcher. And what's ingenious about them, and it was an accidental discovery, is that they're useful without knowing anything about the person who's typing in the search request. You don't need to know their gender, their age, their race, their religious background, even their hobbies or interests. All you need to know is what is on their mind at that moment, and you know that because of what they put in for their search request. So it's a really radical idea that advertising could be incredibly targeted without knowing anything about the demographic profile of the person.
DAVIES: You said that Google depends upon keeping track of what we're doing at other sites. Why?
Mr. STROSS: Whatever we do is helpful to it to understand what we value. If you can think about Google's Web search service, it is a service that tells us what other people have judged to be useful or not useful. And Google needs our contributions, our free contributions, our judgments. That's what its link analysis is all about. It's benefiting from the judgments that Web site editors have made when they put links to other sites into their Web pages.
Google has added all sorts of services unrelated to searching the Web that are designed to hold information that is very dear to us and personal to us on its servers. There is Gmail, its email service. It has a number of services that are competing with Microsoft Office, so instead of running Word on our personal computer, we can use Google Docs that run on Google servers. And its information collection expands, and as it comes to know more and more about us because we are using its services and saving our data on its servers, it can develop more sophisticated ways of trying to guess what we would like to see as far as advertising.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Randall Stross. His new book is "Planet Google." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with technology writer Randall Stross. He has a new book called "Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know."
It's fascinating to read your book and see how many audaciously ambitious things Google undertakes, like its ten-year project to put every single book on earth in digital form, which is, of course, an imperfect experiment, far from complete, fraught with all kinds of legal challenges. But it sort of raises an interesting question about what this company is really about. There's sort of this informal model: don't do evil. Should we see this as a benevolent force in the world, or should we worry about any institution that amasses as much money and power and information as this one has?
Mr. STROSS: As long as we get to see Google wrestle with the tough questions - for example, it has had to justify to a skeptical world why it would cooperate with the Chinese government to set up servers within China that censors search results. And it has been pretty forthcoming about its rationale, about its belief that this unsatisfactory arrangement will eventually give way as reform momentum builds in China, that the imposition of controls in China today will eventually - partly because of the flow of information, even if it's restricting information - will bring truly unfettered access to Google's information.
DAVIES: Do you buy that or is that a rationalization for a commercial motive?
Mr. STROSS: In the case of the Chinese censorship, I'm very ambivalent. I can see the arguments of both the supporters of Google's move, and I can also see very clearly the concerns that this is, in essence, shoring up a government that is, at its core, very repressive.
What I'm more concerned about are the debates that I don't hear Google engaged in internally, debates about what happens as its information stores include so much of our personal information, and we see at other companies data breaches, leaks. Google has been rather unforthcoming. It has essentially said, trust us. We will take good care of your data because we understand our business depends upon maintaining your trust.
However, data has a tendency to leak, and as more and more of the things that we are most concerned about that formerly had gone no farther than our office at home or our den, that sat on our hard drive and no other place, now sits at someone else's server. And it's not just Google. Many companies, of course, are running data centers, and much of our data that is very personal and sensitive sits on many servers. But it's Google that has taken a lead in attracting more of our information in more comprehensive ways than anybody else.
The fact that they don't show us that they are sensitive to how potentially catastrophic it would be for our data to find its way into the hands of someone we don't want it to be, including our own government's, to me, that's concerning.
DAVIES: Well, Randall Stross, I guess we're out of time, but thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. STROSS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Randall Stross' book is "Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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