May 3, 2010 — -- Remember when reporters had guts?
In the late '70s, when I was just out of college, and even before I began my career as a journalist, I worked in public relations at Hewlett-Packard Co.
These were the final years of HP as "the world's greatest company" under its two founders. ... And being in such comfortable and friendly surroundings and working for such an enlightened employer basically spoiled me for any other job thereafter.
Indeed, there were only two problems with that job:
1. I didn't want to be a PR man;
2. Mark Simon.
As it happened, the two were closely related. Simon was a great big, linebacker-sized guy who was both whip-smart and tough. He was a few years older than me and was working for a weekly industry newsprint tabloid called Electronic News. EN was notorious for underpaying its reporters (which was why they were usually young and destined to quickly move on) and for having neither the time nor inclination to do much more editorially than rewrite corporate press releases.
That is, until Mark Simon came along.
He was as young and transient as the rest of EN's reporters; but he was also clever and fearless. Suddenly, under his byline, stories started appearing the likes of which the electronics trade press, notoriously deferential to the giant companies of the tech world, had never seen. Simon broke insider stories, published internal strategy memos and pre-introduced secret projects, all with seeming abandon ... leaving corporate PR departments, like us at HP, scrambling to do damage control and plug the leaks.
As the kid in HP corporate PR department, I both feared Simon for the damage he could do with his breaking stories -- my turf was hugely successful calculator business -- and was in awe of his reporting skills. I also wasn't allowed to talk much with him when he came into our offices for fear I would slip up and accidentally give my counterpart another news hook.
It wasn't until years later, when I was a reporter myself (and talked with Mark) that I came to realize that all Simon was doing was just good hard reporting. His techniques ranged from learning to read upside down the memos on executives' desks while conducting interviews, cold calling low-level employees who didn't know better than to talk with the press, pretending to know information to get official confirmation, and the whole rest of the toolkit of good investigative reporting.
Mark also told me that the biggest source for his insider information was, in fact, the rising golden boy executive at HP, who got a kick out of making controlled leaks to manipulate the press and his counterparts at the company.
Publishing iPhone Prototype Pics: Was What Jason Chen Did Illegal?
Mark went on to become a distinguished political reporter in Sacramento for the San Francisco Chronicle. And, having seen him in action, I redoubled my efforts to become a newspaperman myself -- which I accomplished a couple years later. And in those first years in the newsroom, I tried to pattern myself on what I had seen of Simon in action. He was my gold standard.
That was a long time ago. But what's important today about that story is that no matter how furious HP was at Mark Simon's ability to pre-announce its products and expose internal company documents, it never once crossed anyone's mind to call the cops on him.
Sure, the company complained to the top editors at EN. They threatened leakers with being fired if they were exposed (ironically, that order came from the chief leaker himself -- which should serve as a warning to those who immediately assume that all insider information is, by definition, stolen). And they tried to cut off all access by Simon to the company (he kept publishing leaks anyway).
But no one at Hewlett-Packard ever thought that what Mark Simon was doing was illegal. No one thought he didn't have the right, as a reporter, to publish that insider information he had. Indeed, even when he pre-announced a $1 billion new product and completely screwed up our plans for a press conference and elaborate media roll-out, no one ever considered it a crime. Only that he was just an infuriatingly good reporter, and that we needed to do a better job of security on our side.
Now, roll forward 35 years. A couple weeks ago, Jason Chen, an editor/blogger at the tech site Gizmodo (part of the large gossip blog family Gawker Media) found himself in possession of a prototype of the new Apple G4 iPhone and proceeded to post photos of it on the site. As you can imagine, all hell broke loose as the Web buzzed with speculation about the source of the images, whether the device was stolen, and whether it really was Apple's newest super-product.
What we now know is that the device was indeed a G4 iPhone, not scheduled for formal introduction for weeks hence; and that it wasn't stolen, but accidentally left by an Apple employee in a Silicon Valley beer garden. Whoever found it was knowledgeable enough to know what it was -- and proceeded to sell it to Gawker for a purported $5,000.
Does California's Shield Law Protect Bloggers Like Chen?
So far, it's a classic story: idiot employee, who will no doubt soon be fired, leaves a valuable piece of insider information in a bar ... and it eventually makes its way to an enterprising journalist. The money changing hands is a little distressing, but not without precedent. At this point, the publication should be crowing about its scoop and the company should be chagrined and doubling up on its security.
But we live in a different world now, far removed from the rough and tumble world of "The Front Page." In the interregnum between the death of old media and the rise of the new, journalism has temporarily lost most of its muscle -- a dangerous situation in a nation built on a powerful free press.
So, what happened? This week, Chen's house was raided by officers from California's Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT), a special task force of police officers and federal agents created to combat computer-related crimes -- and which just happens to have Apple on its steering committee. The cops took all of Chen's computer equipment.
Meanwhile, the San Mateo County district attorney is considering whether to bring charges against Chen. It all hinges around whether California's journalist shield law covers bloggers. Well, speaking as someone who was an investigative reporter for one of the nation's top 10 newspapers: Of course it does.
This is appalling. As Instapundit uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds has rightly noted, this is basically "gangland politics," with one side getting to use to the police as its muscle. He's also correct in noting that neither the police nor Apple would ever have tried this against, say, the San Jose Mercury-News (I know because I worked there).
As for Apple, it has been unquestionably the most important and exciting technology company of the last dreary decade in tech, and bless it for that. But big companies are inherently totalitarian (which should give pause to boosters of the current administration's corporatist leanings) and none more so than Apple.
The contempt that Apple (and Steve Jobs in particular) holds toward the media -- and its willingness to manipulate the press for its own ends -- should have produced a media backlash. There should be inside-Apple scoops in the press every week as intrepid reporters go over, under and around every arbitrary barrier Apple puts in front of them.
Reporters Become Apple Promoters
Instead, fearful of being blackballed and missing the big story, and afraid of being swarm attacked by the legions of Apple fanatics who act as unpaid flacks to anyone who dares to challenge the perfection of the company or the divinity of its founder -- and most of all, not having the muscle of the old-time media empires -- today's press largely has turned into the company's full-time lapdog and lickspittle. Some well-known reporters have built entire careers out of being Apple promoters -- and thus being given insider access.
The latest word is that Chen and Gizmodo have lawyered up and are considering suing the police. Good. And they should go after REACT as well, to the point that it is disbanded and replaced by another entity that isn't a tool of big corporations.
Meanwhile, those Apple fanatics out there (including a few big-name bloggers) that are defending this assault on liberty should be deeply ashamed of themselves for being willing to trade the First Amendment for a few cool techno-baubles.