This Does Not Compute

Technology, gaming, music and things that just don't compute

On bloggers, journalistic integrity, and the stolen iPhone debacle

As promised:

Pretty much everyone who follows tech news knows at least the basics of the story about the stolen iPhone prototype.

  1. Apple engineer loses a prototype iPhone at a bar.
  2. College-age kid finds iPhone, realizes OMG IT’S A PROTOTYPE IPHONE.
  3. Apple engineer craps pants, remote wipes iPhone.
  4. College-age kid realizes OMG I COULD MAKE SOME MONEY OFFA THIS, starts shopping it around to tech blogs.
  5. Buncha blogs tell the kid OH HELLS NO, WE AIN’T BUYING STOLEN STUFF.
  7. College-age kid gets a few grand for the phone, gives it to Gizmodo.
  8. Gizmodo runs a story about OMG IT’S A PROTOTYPE IPHONE (and pretty much confirms everything Engadget had been reporting previously), world asplodes.
  10. Gizmodo gets cocky and tells Apple they can have it back, but only if they confirm that it’s OMG A PROTOTYPE IPHONE.
  11. Apple doesn’t like shenanigans. Retrieves iPhone from house of Gizmodo editor.
  12. A few days later, cops roll up to the editor’s house and take a bunch of his stuff as evidence (with a warrant of questionable legality, which is another issue), then do the same to college-age kid.
  13. Gizmodo flips the hell out, conveniently ignoring the fact that THEY BOUGHT STOLEN PROPERTY.
  14. Apple engineer somehow manages to keep his job (as far as we know).

There’s actually a good number of points to bring up in this whole story. It’s perfect for me to dissect, since it covers two things I happen to know a lot about: tech and journalism.

(Truth be told, I feel more confident talking about the journalism aspect of it, seeing as that’s what my BA is in. While tech is my “adopted career”, and I have an industry certification even, I still feel oddly like an outsider.)

So let’s break it down into its components:

Apple engineer loses a prototype iPhone in a bar.

This is probably the weirdest part of the whole story. For the last decade, Apple rumors have become more and more mainstream, yet Apple has been perfectly consistent in not revealing anything until it’s good and ready (its part suppliers aside; random bits sneak out of Foxconn all the time). The fact that a prototype iPhone, allowed to leave campus in almost-finished form, was lost by an engineer is almost unbelievable. Yes, engineers are human too, but with as draconian as Apple reportedly is about internal security, this is a ridiculous blunder — assuming that’s actually what it is. As soon as the story broke, commenters began to conjecture that maybe Apple let the iPhone get lost as a way to build excitement for the device. Eventually this noise began to die down, but I’m finding myself more and more to believe it. Apple’s actions so far have been very careful to give no clue about what its true intentions are; the only actions they’ve taken are to retrieve the iPhone and file a complaint with the cops. They didn’t demand Gizmodo retract its story, nor have they sued Gawker Media, Gizmodo’s parent company.

Then there was the Steve Jobs interview at the All Things Digital conference Tuesday night. Walt Mossberg is one of the Trusted Few that gets Apple products before their release for review. This is great for Mossberg, as it allows him to get a review out there just before or at the same time as a product launch, when a review is the most relevant (if, after picking up an iPad on launch day, everyone realized it sucks, then two days later all of the reviews come out concluding the same thing, what good does that do?). It’s a professional courtesy that Apple affords Walt; he gets better circulation that way, and Apple gets more hype (assuming the review is good) for the new product. But in a long-term relationship like Mossberg has with Apple, that professional courtesy can go both ways; if, hypothetically, a new product Apple’s about to release does indeed suck, he might warn Apple about it ahead of time. It’s the journalist’s version of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” a phrase I learned in J-school as “don’t burn your sources.”

What I’m trying to get at is that it’s highly likely Mossberg prepped Jobs before the interview — told him what questions he was planning to ask, so Jobs could think up answers ahead of time. And sometimes, before interviews, sources will ask to have specific questions asked of them, so they have an oppurtunity to talk about a subject without having to bring it up themselves. It’s quite possible that Jobs actually asked Mossberg to bring the stolen prototype controversy up.

Jobs was uncharacteristically cool when speaking about it. If the reports of what his demeanor is really like are accurate, he should have either 1) refused to answer the question or 2) absolutely flipped out and started jumping up and down on stage like a crazed chimpanzee. Of course he didn’t go into specifics — Jobs basically reiterated the very basic premise of the saga — but he didn’t go out of his way to spin it or otherwise hide what the stolen device was. He could have referred to it as a “prototype device” or a “test unit” or some other ambiguous term to cast doubt that the iPhone was, indeed, what will be unveiled at WWDC. He all but admitted what it was, which is, well, damn peculiar. Here’s the pertinent paraphrased quote from Engadget’s coverage:

To make a product you need to test it. You have to carry them outside. One of our employees was carrying one. There’s a debate about whether he left it in a bar, or it was stolen out of his bag.

That last sentence is interesting too; it’s phrased as if Jobs is an outsider. One would think that if losing the iPhone was truly an accident, Jobs would have grilled the poor Apple engineer himself, or at least those investigating internally would have a reasonable idea as to whether the phone was actually removed from the bag (and thus not lost, but rather directly stolen), or simply forgotten and left behind (and subsequently stolen when it was failed to be returned to Apple by the college-age kid). I think that with that sentence, Jobs is intentionally ambiguous and overall, he’s just narrating the story from the public’s perspective — not from his own. It’s fairly typical of him, to reveal only a little bit of new information at a time yet remain nebulous about other details (read up on his replies to e-mails people have sent him, asking about iPad printing, iPhone tethering, etc.).

Ultimately, while it’s more likely Apple really did lose the phone accidentally (and some could argue it’s actually quite a surprise it hadn’t happened sooner), I’m very hesitant to discount the possibility that all of this was intentional.

Gizmodo buys stolen goods to gain pageviews.

Regardless of what the police investigation results are, it’s pretty much fact that Gizmodo bought the prototype iPhone from the college-age kid for the purpose of 1) verifying that it was indeed a real Apple prototype (not some knockoff) and 2) getting the exclusive on its confirmed existence. Up until the iPhone surfaced, there were photos and random reports that popped up here and there (some of which Engadget and Gizmodo covered), but nobody personally came forward and let a media outlet see the unit directly. Just like most other tech blogs and news sites, Gizmodo’s entire source of income is advertising revenue, and the amount that advertisers pay depends on how many views their ads will receive. The more views, the higher the price. (This is why a 30-second spot can cost millions of dollars during the Super Bowl.) Thus, page views are very important to ad-funded sites.

Some have called into question whether the prototype iPhone was technically stolen at all. Assuming you believe that it was indeed forgotten at that bar (and not taken from the engineer’s bag), and that Apple did indeed always want to retrieve the unit (as in, it was really an accident all along, and Apple didn’t “lose” it on purpose), I still see it as being stolen. We know that college-age kid contacted the Apple engineer, but we don’t know exactly what was said. If the phone was truly lost on accident, logic would dictate that the engineer (or a higher-up at Apple) would have tried to arrange to meet with the college-age kid to retrieve it, and if the kid was honest, he would have gotten it back to them ASAP. (Whether he should have left it with the bartender or taken it home with him doesn’t matter; what if the engineer had dropped it on a public sidewalk? Giving it to other people is just passing the buck. Regardless of who has the phone, it’s still Apple’s property until they relinquish it.) Intentionally failing to return the device, especially after contacting its owner and being told that said owner does indeed wish for its return, counts as theft in my book.

Obviously, whatever was said between Apple employees and the college-age kid, it didn’t persuade him to give the iPhone back. It’s even possible that what Apple told him prompted him to sell the device (perhaps they threatened him right off the bat and he decided to sell it in an act of defiance and revenge?). And if you fully believe in the Apple-lost-the-phone-on-purpose story, then it’s not a stretch of the imagination that Apple could have told the kid specifically to shop it around to the media — and that while they’d press charges later to make it all look legit, they’d make it worth his while. (This would, of course, open its own can of worms; Apple would be the one committing the crime, and I really don’t think they’ve gotten that evil yet.)

But I digress. Safe to say, college-age kid, in the eyes of the law, likely stole the phone, then he started contacting tech blogs and news outlets to try to sell it. He may have proposed such a sale more as “paid access” to the phone (as in, he’ll let the journalists spend some time with, but not keep, the phone in exchange for cash), but any journalist who has a clue and/or a legal department to refer to would know exactly what was going on. Gizmodo wasn’t the first, and wasn’t the only outlet that college-age kid contacted; Steve Jobs himself said in his All Things D interview that he tried to sell it to Engadget, and various reports also indicate that other organizations were approached as well. All but Gizmodo turned him down. They knew that if they ran the story, they’d get crazy numbers of pageviews and publicity — tons of money — but they knew that they’d be in a heap of legal trouble if they bought stolen property, and furthermore, their ethics kicked in. Journalists just don’t do that sort of thing. All through J-school I was taught, “do not break the law while reporting,” for if you do and your readers find out, your credibility goes out the window.

Journalists have it tough these days. Asked of a random stranger, he or she would likely say that the first thing that comes to mind about reporters is muckraking, blowing stories out of proportion, and generally just reporting on useless junk. The problem, though, is that only a few reporters actually do that; I read and watch a lot of news, and the vast majority of what I’ve read and seen was researched well and presented in a fair way. (Remember that reporters aren’t omniscient; they rely on their sources for their information. Sources lie to reporters all the time. Sometimes a reporter has multiple sources for the same topic that they can fact-check each other against, but if there’s only one source, it’s up to the reporter and his or her editors to make a judgment call as to whether the story sounds legit. Reporters and human too, and yeah, they’ll make mistakes.)

I’m content to say that of all the media outlets approached to buy the stolen iPhone, Gizmodo was the only one willing to set its ethics aside for it. This isn’t necessarily the first time they’ve done so, though. Gizmodo is owned by Gawker Media, which also published Valleywag, who, back in January, offered up a $100k bounty to get its hands on an iPad before they were announced. Obviously Gawker management was willing to take the risk more than once.

“So what,” you say, “just because Gawker management is willing to break the law doesn’t mean that Gizmodo reporters are ethically deficient.” Let me tell you a story. During a media ethics class I took, our prof handed each of us a dime. When asked why, she explained that it’s the start to our “go-to-hell fund”. Put some money into a savings account each month, she said, in case someday your editor or boss told you to do something unethical or illegal. Provided you saved up a decent amount, you’d then be free to tell him or her to go to hell and quit your job.

Good reporters know of this. Every journalist I’ve ever talked with emphasized being true to your ethics and honest with your audience. Gizmodo’s editors either blew their go-to-hell funds at the bar, or they didn’t see that buying a stolen prototype iPhone was ethically wrong.

Was all of it worth it for Gizmodo? After all, as Gizmodo themselves declared when covering a Foxconn worker’s suicide, it’s just a F*CKING PHONE.

Shield laws vs. felonies.

I’m going to make this part brief. Shield laws for journalists were put in place to protect both journalists and their sources. It’s to keep whistleblowers from getting sued, harrassed, or even killed because their identities were forced to be revealed by the reporter they spoke to. Generally, reporters only want to utilize sources they’ll keep anonymous on stories that are big in scale and affect the public as a whole. Watergate is a great example.

Shield laws do not, in any fashion, protect journalists who have broken the law. Journalists cannot break into politicians’ offices and steal paperwork and claim they’re home free due to shield laws, and they most certainly cannot use them to justify purchasing a stolen iPhone.

Here’s how I see shield laws applying to this case:

  1. Yes, they should apply in that the Gizmodo writers shouldn’t have to confirm the name of the guy who sold them the stolen iPhone, since in some ways he could be considered a “source.”
  2. Gizmodo is still completely liable for buying a stolen iPhone, and possibly for extortion too (for their curt response to Apple, explaining that they’ll only give the phone back if Apple confirms its existence). College-age iPhone stealer guy is still on the hook too, because his roommate (probably really his girlfriend) had already given his name up to Apple when she contacted them about the phone, afraid she’d be in trouble too — so Gizmodo doesn’t need to reveal him as a source, since we already know of him by other means.

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