"We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch." -- AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong
Around five years ago, Microsoft fueled a controversy by giving $4,000 Acer Ferrari 1000 laptop computers running Windows Vista Ultimate to some popular tech bloggers. A lot of bloggers -- particularly those who did not receive incredibly overpriced luxury branded laptops -- raised such a ruckus that Microsoft eventually asked for them back. Bloggers who wouldn't give them up were encouraged to hold a contest giveaway.
I was reminded of this controversy when I read TechCrunch writer M.G. Siegler's post this morning about how the news site's impartiality would not be affected by TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington actively investing in companies they report on:
The notion that Mike, or anyone else, investing in a company would dictate some sort of giant conflicted agenda is laughable. Literally. If Mike tried to get me to write some unreasonable post about a company he had invested in, I would laugh at him. But he would never do that. Ask Loic Le Meur. Ask Kevin Rose. Ask Shervin Pishevar. Ask Airbnb. Ask countless others. He didn't get to where he is by being an idiot. ...
The magic at TechCrunch happens because the writers have very little oversight. Instead, the emphasis is placed on hiring the right writers in the first place and putting them through a trial-by-fire to see who emerges. Those that have, my peers, are the best at what they do.
Siegler's defense is exactly the same as those Ferrari bloggers. Every journalist knows she is personally capable of rising above conflicts of interest to report without fear or favor. Getting to do it on a $4,000 laptop tricked out like a midlife crisis sports car is all the sweeter.
But let's say Arrington's new investment fund bankrolls Heello, the Twitter clone that 300,000 people were fascinated by for exactly 12 minutes last month.
Will he report that story with the same enthusiasm he would give another startup that isn't fattened by Arrington's filthy lucre? There are far more lousy startups out there than Siegler has time to cover. It would be easy to make Heello a story he didn't quite get around to writing. The way a story gets reported isn't the only place journalistic bias rears its head. There's also the decision about whether to cover something at all.
Even if those fire-tested TechCrunch writers give impartial coverage to Arrington's ventures and all of their direct competitors, there's another way his investments bite them in the ass.
People will be too cynical to believe in that impartiality.
If you accepted that laptop from Microsoft in 2006, for the rest of time you face a choice every time you write about the company: You can disclose that gift again or risk having a snarky bastard in the comments make it sound like you intentionally covered it up.
Siegler now faces the same disclosure issue over and over again, and he didn't even get a laptop.
An epic battle is underway over one of the oldest super-hero roleplaying games, but sadly it won't be settled by muscle-bound men in tights. The creators of the game Villains & Vigilantes, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Scott Bizar, the longtime publisher of the game. The suit, filed July 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, claims that Bizar has no right to publish the game or any related products and illegally profits from their sale.
Villains & Vigilantes was created by Dee and Herman and first published in 1979 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc., a corporation founded by Bizar. The game, one of the first to extend Dungeons & Dragons-style play into the super-hero genre, was popular in the early '80s and spawned a comic book series and other spin-off products. But by 1987, Fantasy Games Unlimited had run into financial difficulties with distributors and its business activity slowed to a crawl.
In June 2010, Dee and Herman started Monkey House Games, LLC and announced they would be publishing a new version of the game, which has been copyrighted in their names since its first edition. Dee told Ain't It Cool News that they had never been informed by Bizar that Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc., ceased to exist in 1991, which he said caused the publishing rights to revert to them:
We started to become unhappy in the late 1980s when FGU stopped advertising V&V, taking it to conventions, or even soliciting distributors. When it became clear that this situation wasn't going to change, we started looking for ways to get our game back. But for years, it looked hopeless. The contract seemed to give Scott Bizar enough loopholes so that he could keep it in force perpetually with little effort, and attempts to purchase the publishing rights from him were met by outrageously high price tags.
Our contract was with Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc. -- which, we recently discovered, was "dissolved by proclamation" by the state of NY in 1991 ... It no longer exists. And the contract clearly stated that if FGU, Inc., ever ceased to exist, then the publication rights reverted back to us.
Bizar's a high school teacher in Arizona who kept his old games in print and ran a game store in Gilbert, Ariz., that closed in 2007. He told an interviewer in 2000, "My principal trade is now teaching not publishing. When you're over 50 and married with a child you cannot allow yourself the same delirious adventures as when you're 20 or 30. ... I no longer promise to fight as hard as I did in 1987, when the distributors refused to sell FGU products because they were not presented in boxes like TSR products."
Dee's a game developer whose credits include the TWERPS and Quicksilver roleplaying games, the Warchest board game, and the computer game The Sims: Castaway Stories. In 2005, he released Living Legends, a super-hero game intended to be a sequel to Villains & Vigilantes. Herman's a writer published in comics such as Elementals, Robotech and Just Imagine and the computer games Ultima VI and Wing Commander II.
For the past 12 months, both Monkey House and Bizar have been actively publishing and marketing Villains & Vigilantes and related products. Bizar's sole proprietorship, also called Fantasy Games Unlimited, has brought on new game developers. After Monkey House attempted to register a Villains & Vigilantes trademark on June 16, 2010, Bizar did the same a month later, leading to a case before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that began in March. The filing of this suit will likely cause that case to be suspended pending the result of litigation.
Brent Rose, the Tampa attorney representing Dee and Herman, told me in email that the suit was filed after other means of resolving the dispute were attempted. "There were cease and desist letters issued by both sides," he said. "We requested arbitration or mediation or even just a teleconference to just try and work things out before filing our federal lawsuit, but our written requests were either ignored or refused."
There's a great interview in Willamette Week about my friend Matt Haughey, who has turned MetaFilter into a successful small business that employs around 3-5 people and gets 25 million hits a month.
Haughey, who was one of the founders of Blogger, left Silicon Valley for McMinnville, Ore., several years ago. The interviewer does a nice job of picking up on the phrase "lifestyle business," which is used in the dot-com world to insult startups that make a sustainable amount of money for their staff but don't get deeply into debt trying to become the next Facebook. To those who believe he should've made MetaFilter into something huge, he says:
I'm OK with this lifestyle business. It's a put-down for a lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley. I think it's the best thing in the world. You don't have to kill yourself. I've been at startups where we worked 16 hours a day and didn't get anything out of it. It's stupid. Geeks who know how to program and make things should be able to make a small thing that runs forever and make $100,000 a year and live off that. I mean, what is wrong with that? It's an awesome goal.
I never got that message anywhere in the tech community. Like, what is wrong with making a decent living in doing something you love forever? And then people put that down as a "lifestyle business." Or ask, "How are you going to change the world or make the next Facebook?"
It's like nobody sings unless they want to be Britney Spears. That's stupid -- we should all sing in bars three nights a week if we like it and get paid as professional musicians.
I gravitate towards lifestyle businesses as well, despite well-intentioned friends and relatives who believe I really should be a dot-com billionaire by now. I recently spoke by phone to someone who was meeting prospective investors for a "$20 million idea" instead of continuing a dot-com business that made yearly profits in the mid six figures.
All I could think about during the call was how sweet it would be to run that existing business.
I've had a mixed history with author Joe McGinniss. His true-crime book Cruel Doubt was a laughably bad attempt to blame Dungeons & Dragons for a 1988 murder. His soccer book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro may be the best sports book I've ever read.
McGinniss has a biography of Sarah Palin coming out in the fall. I was looking forward to it, since his move-next-door stunt reminds me of funny things he did in Castel di Sangro. But I'm looking forward to it less after reading this paragraph from his Palin book, which he shared on his blog:
Sarah Palin practices politics as lap dance, and we're the suckers who pay the price. Members of our jaded national press corps eagerly stuff hundred dollar bills into her g-string, even as they wink at one another to show that they don't take her seriously.
That's a lot of sexist awfulness packed into 45 words.
In the din of voices casting judgment on Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) for having consensual extramarital cybersex with six women, none of whom have complained that they were harassed or offended, a few people in the media share my complete lack of outrage over his sex life.
For my part I couldn't care less what sort of pictures or messages Weiner has been sending around the Net, and it's an imposition to be required to care; to be unable to avoid the topic. I find that I have no interest in Congressman Anthony Weiner's sex life or virtual sex life whatsoever. And I've heard enough tearful on-camera contrition to last me the rest of my life. I don't want to hear Weiner's apology. It's got nothing to do with me, tells me nothing I want to know; the cable news media, conservative and liberal, would do the public a favor if they would agreed to a blanket tearful-apologies ban effective this instant.
There are few things more sickening -- or revealing -- to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation.
On MSNBC, the cable-news "home page" of my political tribe, one commentator said that one of the things Weinergate shows is that powerful politicians assume they can get away with things that regular people can't. If they do assume that, they’re wrong. It would be more accurate to say that they can't get away with things that regular people can. Look around you. Consider your friends, your work colleagues, your relatives, maybe even yourself. It's likely that a nontrivial proportion of them have some sexual secret (at least they think it's a secret) in their lives.
As far as I can tell -- we've all got a depressingly big sample size -- a politician's sexual fidelity in marriage, or his sexual behavior generally, doesn't reliably tell us anything about the integrity he demonstrates when acting in his official capacity. Nor is our moral culture elevated when we focus on these scandals. It is degraded, both because a large amount of the interest is prurient, and because by focusing on the sexual behavior of egocentric alpha males who spend a lot of time traveling far from home (that is to say, politicians) we may even be fooling ourselves into thinking that sexual impropriety is more common than it is, and thereby normalizing it.
Megan McArdle, a commentator for The Atlantic, believes that it's the valid role of the media to dig into our private lives to see if we've kept our wedding vows:
I don't think that cheating on your wife, or lesser betrayals like sexting, are minor marital pecadillos, of no more public interest than whether you remembered to pay the gas bill or unload the dishwasher. I don't think it's the government's job to punish infidelity, but that doesn't imply that society has no interest in whether people keep their vows. Marriage is a valuable social institution. There are good reasons that society should buttress it. ...
[T]here's something a little too fifties about the "All men do it, so why should we care?" approach to this. I'd like to think that enforcing the norms which hold that infidelity is really, actually wrong is worth taking a few hours out of a slow news cycle.
Before the next politician gets caught with his pants down, there's something I'd like to put on the record. After many years of being a moralistic scold, I have lost faith in the idea that this kind of stuff has any bearing on whether someone is a good leader. A public figure can be admirable in public life and scurrilous in private. As long as the sex involves consenting adults and the person would not deny others the pursuit of the same happiness, it's none of our damn business.
It's ridiculously intrusive for McArdle to think that there's a compelling societal interest in policing marital fidelity.
Her premise is founded on the assumption that extramarital sex is universally wrong. I think most of us would say that it is, especially if our partner or our relatives are in earshot. But if you read a sex advice columnist who encourages complete candor, like Dan Savage or Dear Prudence, you find numerous people who've made different arrangements.
A marriage operates by its own rules, most of which outsiders never learn -- even if they're close to the couple. One of the drawbacks to holding married people to account is that we don't what these rules are, and finding them out would be incredibly invasive. When they file their first story on a sex scandal, how do reporters know they're not maligning a person for sex outside of marriage whose spouse accepts the arrangement and engages in it too? There are people who do that sort of thing -- and some of them aren't even Europeans.
There's a funny, profane speech on YouTube by Savage, who thinks an insistence on absolute lifelong monogamy breaks up marriages that could otherwise thrive.
"We need to think of monogamy the way we think of sobriety. You can fall the ---- off the wagon and sober back up," he says. "I'm a deeply conservative person. I believe these things because I want people's marriages to survive for the long haul."
This is from a guy who has spent the last 20 years hearing from people about their actual sex lives. It should come as no surprise that he takes a more tolerant view of sexual transgressions than media talking heads who tut-tut in disapproval with each bimbo eruption.
Expecting the media to dig into the fine print of somebody's marital contract is disturbing. McArdle and her husband Peter Suderman are both journalists at prestigious national publications whose marriage was covered in the New York Times, so they're limited public figures. If they become embroiled in a sex scandal, would McArdle agree that it's my job as a journalist to buttress marriage by subjecting them to a thorough probing?
McArdle's argument that the media has a valid role enforcing societal norms is even worse. Homosexuality has been far outside the norm until recent years. Was this ever a sufficient justification to reveal that a public official was gay?
If you have any empathy at all, it's excruciating to see the press take a blow-by-blow look at somebody's sex life. I cringed at questions Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was called to answer during his press conference Monday. As much as he invited that treatment by lying, I think many people would lie to prevent private sexual conduct from being scrutinized, especially if there's some guilt involved. Everybody has aspects of our sex lives we wouldn't want to explain to the world on live television. For most of my late teens I made sweet, sweet love to a throw rug I nicknamed Valerie Bertinelli.
Today, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) admitted that he sent a picture of his bulging crotch over Twitter to a female college student in Seattle and accidentally made it public. Obviously, my earlier post was completely wrong. This is my correction.
At the outset, I'd like to make it clear that I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I'm deeply sorry. I'm deeply ashamed of my terrible judgment and actions. I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, a newspaper journalist who hates reporting errors like Charlie Sheen hates interventions.
When I started looking into this scandal, I found numerous reasons to doubt the veracity of Dan Wolfe (PatriotUSA76), the Twitter user who claimed to have found the photo posted by Weiner before it disappeared. Wolfe's Twitter account -- before he deleted it -- demonstrated deep obsession and irrational hatred for the congressman and his wife Huma Abedin over a period of six months. Based on my understanding of how Twitter works, I did not believe the story he told about finding it.
When Breitbart's site reported the original story, he had not checked out Wolfe at all, as he admitted to Tommy Christopher of Mediaite in a phone interview:
Once we published our story about Dan Wolfe, Andrew called me again, and it was clear from the conversation that he had genuine concerns about Wolfe as a source, and that he had been unaware of his prior activity on Twitter.
Because Wolfe's background was so dubious, Breitbart associate Lee Stranahan has been investigating Wolfe for days. He found numerous reasons to doubt him. On Saturday, Stranahan wrote:
Is Patriot a man or a woman? A group of people? ... Nobody I've encountered except "Patriot" knows. That is a fact. Nobody knows. There's a reason for that.
The facts gathered so far tell me one thing I'm sure about: Patriot is a liar and a manipulator. I'm 100% sure on that.
None of this means that Rep. Weiner isn't hiding something.
Like he did in the Shirley Sherrod incident, Breitbart did not begin to check out his source until after running his original story and talking it up on every cable news channel that would have him. This is not how journalism is supposed to work. But as I read all the coverage of this scandal the past weekend from news sites on the left, right and middle, it seems to be the emerging standard. First get it out. Then check it out.
Though he demanded (and got) an apology today from Weiner, Breitbart has never apologized for his July 2010 story that called Sherrod a racist based on maliciously edited video he received from a highly questionable source.
I think he should have apologized for that, as I am now apologizing to him for calling his Weiner piece "a bogus story being pimped by the biggest charlatan on the right." The conclusions I reached were proven untrue.