The Deplorable State Of Mac Web Journalism
June 26th, 2000

Perhaps if you SAW a copy of the [PhotoShop 6] beta you'd believe all of these things [features reported on in a leaked Adobe PhotoShop spec sheet]. Normally, I don't believe them, however, in this case, all of the things described are in the beta.

Oh, and one thing was not described. The working name for this version [of Photoshop] is "Venus in Furs." That was the name of an erotic novel from the 19th century. The splash screen I saw (and I'm SURE it won't be in the final release--too bad!) shows a Bill the cat-like figure, dressed in a kinky black out fit, posed like Boticelli's famous Venus rising from the ocean in a shell. In fact, you can even see the shell in the background. It is very funny

-- A message posted at about the upcoming release of Adobe PhotoShop 6

(Note: in this article I use the term Mac Web to indicate the loose network of Mac related Web sites which attempt to offer news, editorials and information about all thing in the Apple universe and beyond.)

Jeez. Three weeks before Macworld and there isn't much news about Apple to go around. Except rumors. So I'll take this opportunity to propose some serious introspection on the deplorable state of Mac journalism on the so-called Mac Web. But first bear with me while I indulge in irresponsible mongering of the latest Mac rumor, much to the detriment of the Apple's multi-billion dollar bottom line:

iMac shipments from Apple to Sears and other retailers have stopped. Rumors are that a speed-bumped iMac is ready for unveiling at Macworld in July. My source wishes to remain anonymous.

Ouch, just printing that has gotta hurt corporate profits! Why? The logic goes: If you were thinking about buying an iMac today -- don't. Wait till the new version comes out, circa August. Apple will just have to eat all those old iMacs! Bah, ha ha ha! I'm such an irresponsible clown. Imagine! I foolishly believe that my first allegiance is to you -- the reader -- and damn the corporate profits!

Better yet, as the so-called logic goes, don't buy a Mac till 2005! By then wireless iMacs will run at a blazing 4 GHz with 200 gigs of hard drive space and the whole package will fit neatly into your shirt pocket.

Rumor versus Anecdote.

I love rumors. Rumors make the world go round while revealing our silliest hopes and fears. What I hate is anecdotal evidence. A rumor's source is always obscure or it wouldn't be a rumor. Anecdote is more insidious than rumor: its source is highly visible and appears to be based in fact, when nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, imagine you are a Mac reporter. You got a hunch that iMac retail sales might be slowing? Call a few shops that sell iMacs and find a sales person or two to say iMac sales ARE slowing at their outlet -- gawala! You got a source, a quote and some details to buttress your premonition. Run spellcheck and you got an objective story, right? Wrong, what you got is content to hang a banner ad on; the science of objectivity has little in common with such an endeavor. Journalism at its core is a search for truth. Anecdotes are bad scientific method.

Take Michael Munger's article on the deplorable state of Mac software as an example of anecdotal reasoning used to reach an untenable conclusion. He calls OS 9 the worst Mac OS since 7.5 and then goes on to list his personal horror stories with OS management. The fact that his narrow experience is but one among millions of Mac OS users phases him not in the least. He concludes that the current version of the Mac OS sucks.

My own anecdotal experience with Macintosh is that you need a maintenance technician for every 100 Macs in a networked office environment while at least one techie is needed for every 25 PCs in the same office. My own set of late model Macs almost never crash, in spite of the torture I inflict on them daily. My own very positive anecdotal experience with the Mac OS perfectly cancels out Michael's very negative experience, thus logically renders his article's conclusion null and void, and so it goes with all anecdotal accounts.

Anecdotal conjecture is more misleading than rumor because anecdotes are blind to the larger trends they are employed to illustrate. Like statistics, they can be manipulated to paint whatever picture one chooses to paint, any likeness to reality is purely coincidental. Extrapolating from a single instance of anything renders almost anything possible.

The consensus of informed Mac users is that: 1) Mac OS 9 is more stable than the varieties of OS 8, and, 2) OS 8.x is more stable and powerful than OS 7.x, and, 3) OS 7.x is an improvement over OS 6. That this consensus exists is a fact. Notice a trend here? Trends outrank anecdotes on any truth meter.

Conclusion: Mac software isn't deplorable, what's deplorable is reporting that fails to determine the distinction between idiosyncratic issues native to one's environment and the larger, truly relevant trend, which is the only really useful information to readers.

Rumors, true or false, perturb conventional thinking. Anecdotes are selected to reinforce existing prejudices.

Because anecdotes are insupportable extrapolations of a single fact, they lie. Rumors, on the other hand, never come with certificates of authenticity --their bastard origins belie any efforts to elevate them to the high pedestal of truth.

When the venerable Mac journalist Don Crabb reported in May of 1999 that a highly placed Apple source whispered to him that Apple was for sale, it later turned out to be one hugely false rumor. Nevertheless, the Apple-for-sale rumor perturbed the prevailing dogma circulating the Mac Web at the time. Some people immediately blasted Mr. Crabb for starting the rumor (actually, it's an old rumor that crops up once a year with or with out Mr. Crabb's assistance). Other bewildered Mac commentators revealed their total ignorance of the fact that Apple is an actual business as opposed to a religion. They never even entertained the possibility that a corporate buyout could be in the cards.

Ultimately, Mr. Crabb's rumor-mongering served as a useful catalyst for plenty of interesting analyses of just what Apple's business strategy might be, and the public's thought process came to grips with scenarios not often considered. No one was the worse for this academic exercise.

Ethical Journalism?

There is a school of thought among some Mac writers that rumors and advanced news about new products are bad because they hurt Mac sales. For instance, I know a Mac writer who claims if he heard from a good source that Apple was reducing prices on iMacs to clear out old inventory to prepare for a new and improved iMac release, he would NOT report it to you, the reader, in order to protect the Apple Corporation's iMac sales.

Absolute nonsense! That's the same false logic as those one-day gasoline boycotts to punish the oil companies going around on the Web. If you don't buy gas today you'll have to tomorrow anyway. A sale deferred is not a sale lost.

Such a stand makes a reporter a traitor to his audience and places him in violation of the most basic premise of journalism: the unspoken trust between reader and writer. Readers, perhaps naively, expect journalists to tell the truth. Withholding information is the same as a lie.

No serious journalist would doubt that his or her allegiance is first to the readers, not to the corporation being covered. Sometimes that allegiance is going to make for confrontation.

Every reporter has the power to deny the public's access to news, but a responsible journalist would no more abuse this power than a doctor would prescribe euthanasia. In fact, it is an ethical violation of the tradition of the American free press to suggest that a reporter should collude with a business to help them obscure truth for the sake of corporate profits.

Anyone too timid to run afoul of a corporation's self-interest should not become a journalist.

Adobe to MacNN: The Truth is Bad For Business!

I hate to rag on the Mac Observer's own Michael Munger again, but as they say, you always expect the most from family. Michael recently wrote a confused editorial about Adobe's bully policy towards a Web site that published inside information about PhotoShop 6.

Michael believes that MacNN shouldn't have gone to press with the specs on the yet-to-be-released Adobe PhotoShop 6, since the Adobe corporation -- a formidable business with a $15 billion market capitalization -- didn't approve of its not-so-secret secrets about PhotoShop 6 being released ahead of their official Hollywood-style product release.

As the story goes, Adobe went ballistic and threatened to sue MacNN for tens of millions of dollars in damages over the article, which appeared on their notorious AppleInsider Web site on May 30. Under immense pressure, MacNN, a penniless rag compared to Adobe, had to say uncle. In fact, reports claim a legal goon squad from Adobe called MacNN and told Monish Bhatia, MacNN's publisher, that he had 20 minutes to take the story down or face a world-o'-pain law suit. When Mr. Bhatia didn't jump fast or high enough, Adobe sued.

Michael Munger's editorial on the Adobe/MacNN confrontation misses every one of the larger sociopolitical issues at stake here to focus on a few entirely petty points. He thoughtlessly dismisses the whole issue by concluding that MacNN has no right to "publish virtually anything" since their "goal is little more than increased page views." Moreover Michael says that entities in the business world would benefit if they "could pursue their goals without third-party interference" from a nosey press willing to expose the secrets corporations seek to hide from consumers.

Sure, Adobe can sue anyone they want, but it is rather disturbing to think about the larger implications that their take-it-down-in-twenty-minutes-or-we-sue threat has for the freedom of the press on the Web. In the old days, John Q. Public didn't get the news until the newspaper hit the streets. Adobe can't call the New York Times and issue 20-minute ultimatums, since ink on paper can't be deleted. Of course, they wouldn't even waste their time trying to command the New York Times to bend to their corporate will. Even the arrogant legal bulldogs at Adobe know a real journalistic organization with a legal staff would merely laugh in their pitbull mugs.

However, the Adobe corporate suits are quite keen to test the freedoms and resolve of insecure new media on the Internet. Adobe is a company that may someday own the nascent electronic book market as their Portable Document Format (PDF) becomes the de facto standard, so their eagerness to censor is ironic and ominously portends further trouble from this emergent e-media giant.

Threats like Adobe's 20-minutes ultimatum to MacNN present a real challenge to the operational integrity of a free press in the Information Age, where unlike in the print world, information can come and go in a second. In fact, if the innocently careless views of Munger are anecdotal evidence of the Mac Web's level of intellectual depth, then perhaps Adobe's actions are a sort of regressive training for the Mac Web. As Munger says, "Even if this lawsuit never goes to court, it may give rumor sites a good scare, enough to understand that not everybody benefits from their work." That's right: let's browbeat the independence right out of the young minds that man the Mac Web!

Adobe, like any unprincipled school yard bully, picked on the weak link in the system. Not surprisingly MacUser, a real journalistic organization, still has the leaked PhotoShop 6 features posted on their website and all indications are that Adobe hasn't hassled with them.

No one can blame a multi-national, billion-dollar corporation for calling MacNN's bluff as a defense from what they probably preceive to be a violation of their property rights. No one expects big ham-fisted corporations to protect the first amendment rights of the free press or the consumer's right to know. In fact, the phase shift to electronic journalism on the Net affords corporations with an opportunity to modify the implementation of the first amendment in journalism for the first time since the event of television. We as pure e-journalists are on the front line of the battle. Every civil right on the Web is more tenenous than the same right in the real world. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile.

What is truly sad and deplorable is that some Mac web writers and editors have defected to the defense of the Adobe Corporation's right to muzzle the press by means of bogus and brutal threats of financial extermination, as if Adobe needs their help.

In effect, those Mac writers who don't defend MacNN's mission to report news freely are relinquishing to the big corporations the very freedoms they were charged to defend from the moment they began pretending to be journalists! Shame. Some one needs to point out that brave people died for the rights these so-called journalists blithely toss to the wind.

I am appalled that many Mac writers on the Web seem willing to look to the corporations they cover for guidance as to how they should responsibly cover those same corporations. Imagine Woodward and Bernstein submitting their articles to Nixon for approval, or Daniel Ellsberg asking the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve of the release of the Pentagon Papers. Perhaps most relevant to the Adobe-type threats are cases of insiders coming forward with damaging news about tobacco companies, automotive recalls, and the like. The public's right to know and the journalist's duty to convey revelant news overrides any corporation's (or government's, for that matter) right to conceal information. Every time.

Adobe hasn't done anything wrong, but don't be naïve: corporations do not have the best interests of consumers at heart, nor is that their first charge. Adobe seeks to maximize profits for their shareholders. The company unwittingly reveals their less-than-benign motives by claiming that advance knowledge of Adobe's PhotoShop 6 features will hurt sales to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Huh? Let's analyze that assertion for a moment.

Does Adobe mean that if design professionals discover what new features are in PhotoShop 6 they'll decide not to budget for purchases of new licenses, instead choosing to wait for some real improvements? Does Adobe believe that only consumers kept ignorant of the new features will buy PhotoShop 6? Is the God's honest truth in this case bad for business? If the God's honest truth is bad for business, shouldn't Adobe be exposed?

Does this set a precedent for Adobe to sue reviewers who reveal bugs that the company has scheduled to announce at a later date? If Munger writes a software review, does he plan on consulting with the maker to be assured the information contained in the review will not damage sales? These are dead serious questions that go directly to the heart of the matter.

Adobe's claim that ignorance about its future products will increase sales is a perfect example of why NO corporation can be trusted to protect your interests. As a reader, do you want to patronize a news or tech website that sides with the corporate world against your best interests? Would you trust a web site that knowingly perpetuated a corporate cover up in order to maximize said corporation's bottom line?

MacNN hasn't done anything wrong. They should stand proud! They tried to bring their readers highly on-topic, timely news they can use, at apparently substantial risk to themselves. It is not MacNN's job to protect Adobe's classified information, nor is it their duty to ignore such information if it become available to them. In fact, to suppress such information would be a violation of their duty to their readers. MacNN has its ethical priorities right.

The journalistic endeavor is always at its basic level adversarial. That's what keeps reporters honest.

A Call for Mac Web Accountability and Solidarity

I believe that some views of some writers at some of the Mac web sites are unethical by the standards established by American journalism during the last 200 years.

Moreover, I believe that those unethical viewpoints have not been articulated clearly to the surfing public.

I'm making a call here and now for Mac publications-- whether on the web or in print-- to make public a statement of their purpose, and provide a clear list of whatever journalistic standards they plan to abide by. If a Web site is dedicated to posting "all the news that's fit to print, except for that which might endanger corporate profits", that's cool, but in all fairness they should state this editorial policy clearly on the home page.

Each Mac-related Web site must determine who they serve, the people or the corporations.

I'm also making a plea here for other Mac columnists, editors and publishers to step forward and help define the role of the Mac Web while instructing in-house writers in the basic ground rules of journalism. Is the Mac Web an extended public relations arm of Apple? Is it a source of news or propaganda or both? What should a reader's expectation be when surfing the Mac Web? What is the difference between a Mac friendly Web site and a Mac (or Adobe) kiss-butt Web site? What are the ethical rules for handling a product review?

I understand that most Mac writers come from a technical or engineering background and did not receive a truly diversified liberal arts background. Time to get with the program! The Mac web is maturing and has become larger than just venue for comparing the latest Kaleidoscope skinz or software easter egg. It's time to adopt and defend the values that made the other journalistic mediums throughout US history so universally trusted and relied upon for real news. It's time to grow up.

Moreover, there should be pact between Mac-related websites to set aside petty rivalries when a powerful corporation singles one site out for legal abuse. It's unforgivable that we can't mount a common defense of our right to print all the news that's fit to print. A corporate attack on any of the Mac web sites should be seen for what is really is -- an attack on us all. It's an attack on the consumer's right to know, on the readers, and on every web site's freedom of speech.

I believe that suppressing news to placate the desires of corporations is not only a betrayal of our readers, but, if allowed to become the modus operandi, it will eventually undermine the reader base of the Mac Web. Readers are clever, they can smell bs. The bottom line is can readers trust the Mac Web to deliver the news they need, or should they should learn to read the Mac Web like the Soviets did the Pravda.

The relationship between the Mac web and corporations that Mr. Munger advocates would render us all redundant, and that redundancy would eventually lead to the Mac Web's extinction.

After all, if I want Adobe's opinion of what I need to know, I only need to go their Web site. 

Your comments are welcomed.