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Credibility comes from what you write, not who you work for

Over at Scobleizer Robert writes about “the irritant of the non-credible journalists”, and really, really indicates that he needs o step away from the computer and take time off.

Now I have no inside information on any of this. I have no idea if Microsoft is or is not set to rewrite 60% of Vista code. Personally, I doubt it: it would take a whole lot longer than till next year. Will they have rewritten 60% of code in total since day one? Probably. Maybe that’s the real issue.

But I take exception to Robert’s post, on a number of points. First of all, it’s simply rude to refer to someone as “that jerk” simply because you’ve read something you disagree with, and to advise your readers to “demand that the journalist who wrote that be immediately and publicly fired” steps way beyond the line. It’s exactly the kind of thing that, in fact, Robert railed against when the he claimed that Dave Winer was being subject to “a lynch mob”. Bemoaning the fact that people are calling Dave “an asshole” and then going on to call someone “a jerk” and more is hypocritical at best.

Secondly, Robert shows the kind of naivety that can only come from someone who’s never worked in tech journalism. Robert says:

“Here’s a hint: when you see a story about a company and that story doesn’t even attempt to get that company’s point of view, then it probably is a non-credible journalist writing it.”

Robert, how on Earth do you know if someone has attempted to get “the company’s point of view”? Sometimes, a company will not comment, sometimes a company won’t return your call (remember how Google isn’t talking to CNet?). It is the job of a journalist not to present the views of a company, but to present the facts that the companies don’t want you to hear.

Even worse, sometimes a company will flat out lie to you. In ten years of tech journalism, I lost count of the number of times that I was given off the record “guidance” from companies that such-and-such a story wasn’t true – which, of course, later turned out to be totally accurate. Only a few days before it turned out Vista was late, Steve Ballmer was claiming it was still on track – on live TV!

A few years ago, a journalist friend of mine got the chance to ask a question of Steve Jobs. It was one of those all-too-rare occasions when Jobs gives a few minutes of his time to the press, and my friend was eager to make the most of his single question. So he asked a good one: “Is it true that you’re working on a version of OS X for Intel processors?”

Jobs had what can only be described as one of his legendary non-linear moments. He called the question “stupid” and went on to talk about how good the PowerPC was. Behind the scenes, senior Apple people went on to make enquiries as to the sanity of the “offending” journalist, and it was made clear that he had better never appear at any press conference with Jobs again. Questions were asked. Strong words were used. A journalist’s reputation was put through the wringer by executives – all for asking a question. A question which, of course, turned out to be on the money. Apple was in fact working on a port of OS X to Intel.

So, yeah, it’s great to get the perspective of the company involved. However, if, as a journalist, you have sources telling you one thing and the company claiming the opposite, you’re probably better off going with your sources than with the company.

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  • http://www.jonathanbaldwin.co.uk Jonathan

    Good points, all of them.

    A minor quibble though: you say “It is the job of a journalist not to present the views of a company, but to present the facts that the companies don’t want you to hear.”

    Wouldn’t it be better to say that it’s the job of a journalist to present the facts whether or not the company wants people to hear them, if it is important that people know them?

    Perhaps the difference is too subtle to make the point, but something I’d say marks what I’ve read of yours from some other journalists’ writing is that you wouldn’t say to yourself ‘mmm… company x doesn’t want me to say ‘Y’, so I will’ but would decide in each case whether the ‘fact’ were newsworthy or not.

    Perhaps I’m being overly picky, but the tendency of some media outlets to confuse public interest with what the public’s interested in depresses me…

    There is the question of sources, mind you. The story you tell of the Intel version wasn’t a ‘fact’ until it was confirmed – whether by Apple or anyone else. Until that point it was a rumour. To report it as fact before confirmation would have been wrong (and I don’t think I ever did see it reported as a fact in ‘responsible’ media).

    The reaction of Apple in this case is bizarre and indefensible, but the act of denying something that later turned out to be true is not – Microsoft admitting to delays ahead of the official announcement and Apple admitting to an Intel OS a long time before they were ready might have had financial implications way beyond the corporate level (layoffs at suppliers/resellers etc).

    My own take is that the greater good outweighs a scoop.

    In the good old days, an off the record briefing with attached embargo would have been all that was needed – do you think such things would still work in IT reporting? Or do they still exist?