02/09/2001

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Fatal Exception Error

Ahem. Dan Bowman decided to rile me up yesterday by sending me this link.  What is it? An allegation that the press kisses up to the likes of Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and my all-time favorites, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They put them on the front page at least once a year and don’t call them on their lies because then they wouldn’t pose for photographers.

There’s a big difference between journalism and PR. Journalism reports the facts. PR casts personalities in the best possible light. What Dave Winer was describing yesterday isn’t journalism, it’s PR. And that’s why I read a lot fewer newspapers and magazines than some people might think a professional writer would.

I interviewed a few people in my days as a newspaper writer. (That photo up in the left corner is the photograph of a 21-year-old crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian newspaper. I scanned it off my press pass.) You’d better believe I hacked some people off. Did I give a rip what the county prosecutor thought of me, or the things I wrote? No. He had to talk to me. Sure, there was a competing newspaper in town (that’s a long story why a town the size of Columbia, Mo., has two papers), but he felt like he had to talk to me anyway. If I cast him in an unfair light, well, that was what the editor was for. Or he’d go tell my rival at the other paper how unfair I was. He’d listen.

I didn’t kiss up to RPs either. (That’s jargon. It means “real people.”) Once I covered the story of a separatist who was living about 15 miles north of Columbia. Now, this guy was one of the biggest looney tunes I ever talked to, but he did have a couple of good points. Everyone does. Even Steve Jobs. (He’s right when he says Microsoft doesn’t innovate, for instance.) But this guy was a criminal, convicted of a DWI. His solution rather than to pay the fine was to withdraw from the union, declare himself sovereign, and declare war on the United States. Really. He also placed liens on the property of everyone he didn’t like–city officials, judges… I believe he demanded payment in gold. He made a lot of people really nervous. He didn’t like me or the story I printed all that much, so he never talked to me again after that. He did get one of his cronies to call me up at the newsroom and threaten me with bodily injury though. (I guess he decided it wasn’t worth it to place a lien on my 1992 Dodge Spirit, or maybe he couldn’t track down that piece of personal property.) So I told my editor, carried around a can of mace for the next few months, and reminded myself that the guy could barely move, whereas I was 21 and still in decent enough shape to play softball well, and the cops all knew me and they knew him.

Oh, and when we did need to get a quote from him after that, I just grabbed the best-looking girl in the newsroom at the given time, asked her to turn the charm on, call him, and talk to him in as soothing and polite a voice as possible. They’d usually be good for about a one-minute conversation, which was enough to say we had talked to the man. By that time, I’d talked to him enough and talked to enough of his separatist allies to know how he thought and put what little we could get out of him in context. Plus I still had my notes from our original interview. It’s amazing how you can milk multiple stories out of a single interview when you have to.

We couldn’t get that separatist to pose for pictures either, needless to say. So we’d find out when he was scheduled to be in court, and one of our photographers would camp out on the courthouse steps and shoot half a roll of film as he walked past. Plus we maintained file photos for just those occasions when someone wouldn’t talk to us, or we couldn’t arrange to have a fresh shot taken due to the lack of a photographer’s availability.

I handled elected officials the same way. I wrote an extremely unflattering story about then-Gov. Mel Carnahan in early 1994. Carnahan wouldn’t talk to me; one of his aides denied the entire story, but I had half a dozen sources from both political parties who gladly talked to me. And a story that I wrote about former Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) in 1996 undoubtedly hacked off more than a few Republicans.

So you hack off Bill Gates or another Silicon Valley personality. Big fat hairy deal. There’s a solution to that problem. Show up at the next speech he gives. Snap three rolls’ worth of pictures during his speech, each in the middle of saying a word. In half or even two thirds of the shots you get, he’ll look like the world’s biggest idiot. Find the least flattering picture, then run it really big. That’ll make him even madder. But remember, he can’t win. The press never loses. Freedom of the press is for those who own one, and, well, most of those guys don’t. Those who do don’t have as big an audience.

Or, if you’re not quite that mad (or your editor isn’t), run a file photo. Run a nice-looking one if you’re somewhat interested in making peace. Run one from the 1970s if you’re less so.

If the press quits kissing Bill Gates’ butt (and those of his sworn mortal enemies), they’ll lose a few interviews and photo ops. But what else will happen is the papers who quit will gain some credibility. Not all will fall into line, at least not at first. But those papers’ reputations as just a cog in the Microsoft PR machine will grow, and it will cost them. So slowly they will fall into line. And Gates will eventually realize that he has to talk to the press, even those he doesn’t like, because that’s the only way you have any control at all over what goes into the press. If you don’t talk, the press has total control.

In journalism school, one of the things they taught me was your integrity is far too high a price to pay for an interview. Your ultimate loyalty isn’t to your sources, but rather, your readers. But not everyone went where I went, and not everyone paid attention in class. But if the computer press would take that advice to heart, eventually we might start seeing less gum-flapping and more action. And that can only mean better products.

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Fatal Exception Error

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