It was a made-to-order story for a newspaper that wants web chatter about itself -- a NYT Sunday Business section potshot at the websites that cover Silicon Valley, premised on the notion that blogs print items they know aren't true, just to generate traffic and attention.
Technology editor Damon Darlin led off with the example of recent blog stories suggesting that Apple was considering a purchase of Twitter. First the story appeared on Gawker, Darlin noted -- then on TechCrunch. Both, Darlin contends, were published with a reckless disregard for the truth.
But if anyone's misrepresenting the truth here, it would appear to be Darlin himself.
Here's how Darlin represented the Gawker and TechCrunch scoops:
Neither story was true. Not that it mattered to the authors of the posts. They suspected the rumor was groundless when they wrote the items. TechCrunch noted, 133 words into its story, that, “The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations.”
But they reported it anyway. “I don’t ever want to lose the rawness of blogging,” said Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch and the author of the post.
But the trouble is that Darlin, not TechCrunch, got it wrong -- and treats TechCrunch with the same sort of disregard for truth he accuses them of practicing.
Darlin's story tries to imply, through careful manipulation of language, that these blogs published their stories even though they doubted they were accurate.
With regard to Gawker, we get only Darlin's assertion that "they suspected the rumor was groundless" when the post went up. But there's no attribution for that statement. Darlin tells us only that Owen Thomas, who wrote the Gawker item and now works for NBC, "didn't want to comment on the record." Is that meant to imply that he talked off the record? Shouldn't an editor have pressed Darlin to clarify the source of information for his allegations, given how tough and specific they are?
Darlin goes on to say that TechCrunch didn't report its rumor disclaimer until 133 words into the story, a statement that appears intentionally misleading. If Darlin counted all the words, he'd know the TechCrunch post didn't report the rumor itself until 81 words into the story, with the disclaimer following in the immediate next sentence -- a disclaimer that went on for several sentences explaining the background, and the blog's motives for publishing a story it knew could well be untrue.
Here's what the May 5, 2009 TechCrunch post actually said, under the headline, "Twitter Mania: Google Got Shot Down, Apple Rumors Heat Up" -- and beginning in the third paragraph. The bold-faced text represents the caveats to the story, all of which makes clear that reporter Michael Arrington in no way wanted to represent the rumor as true.
Today, though, rumors popped up that Apple may be looking to buy Twitter. “Apple is in late stage negotiations to buy Twitter and is hoping to announce it at WWDC in June,” said a normally reliable source this evening, adding that the purchase price would be $700 million in cash. The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations. If these discussions are happening, Twitter is keeping them very quiet indeed. We would have passed on reporting this rumor at all, but other press is now picking it up.
Twitter is strongly signaling that it doesn’t want to sell at any price right now. The founders took significant money off the table in the last round valuing Twitter at $250 million, we’ve heard, and are aligned with investors to see Twitter through to the end.
And frankly that’s probably the best thing for the Internet. I wrote in an earlier post that I’d like to see Twitter spread its wings a little longer and see what it can become. It’ll be hard to do that as a subsidiary of Google, Apple, or anyone else for that matter. If Twitter wants to stay independent that’s just fine with me.
But that didn't stop Darlin from hanging his thesis on Arrington's piece, which reads more like commentary on the Gawker rumor than the blaring of a scoop. If he'd really considered it a scoop, wouldn't Arrington at least have put his news in the first paragraph?
But that didn't keep Darlin from labelling it "truth-be-damned" journalism and likening the practice to the yellow journalism of the early 20th century, as practiced by William Randolph Hearst and immortalized in "Citizen Kane."
Darlin delights in casting Arrington as an arrogant lawyer who "has no journalism training." But is "training" a requirement in journalism? Darlin began his career as a journalist with no "training," either -- he got an American History degree from the University of Chicago.
Darlin might have also pointed out, for the sake of balance, that TechCrunch has accurately broken Silicon Valley scoops in the past, including Google's acquisition of YouTube. (TechCrunch labelled its original story on that as a "completely unsubstantiated rumor" in its first post, even though it turned out to be true -- down to the $1.6 billion purchase price.)
The reporter goes on to say that Arrington is "at ease, even high-minded, in explaining the decisions to print unverified rumors." One could just as easily describe the tone of Darlin's story as high-minded, however -- with its ongoing implication that newspapers never print anything that isn't later proved wrong. See past NYT editor's notes for details -- a quick search of the NYT index turns up dozens in recent years, clarifying inaccuracies, mistakes in reporting, etc.
We get Darlin's point. It's damaging to the journalism profession for blogs to recklessly print stories it knows aren't true, simply to get page views. And it's clear that Arrington (and, even more so, Gawker) operates from a speed-driven mentality that lends itself to mistakes.
But when a NYT reporter weighs in on the topic, the least we should expect is a display of the higher standards it supposedly represents. Darlin's shoot-from-the-hip story showed little of that, and went after Arrington in a reckless and inaccurate way. NYT readers deserve better.