Rotten reporting: Is it just Apple coverage that 'bites'?

Rotten reporting: Is it just Apple coverage that 'bites'?

Summary: I've always considered the way those of us in the press get access to information and execs as somewhat of an "insider baseball" kind of topic. But after reading Newsweek tech correspondent Dan Lyons' diatribe about Apple and the "rotten" reporting by the press corps that covers that company, I thought it was worth touching on the slippery slope of "press access."

SHARE:

I've always considered the way those of us in the press get access to information and execs as somewhat of an "insider baseball" kind of topic. But after reading Newsweek tech correspondent Dan Lyons' diatribe about Apple and the "rotten" reporting by the press corps that covers that company, I thought it was worth touching on the slippery slope of "press access."

(It seems especially pertinent, as I still get readers asking me to "tell Steve Ballmer X" or "ask Steven Sinofsky Y".... It's just not that simple, folks.)

Microsoft, Apple, Google -- every major tech company -- has a set of policies and guidelines addressing which reporters and bloggers with whom they'll work and the extent to which they'll do so. These guidelines can and do seem to vary by product unit; the extent to which the gate keepers still think having a story about them "in print" matters; and the size of a particular blogger/journalist's audience. Some execs will talk directly to us reporters/bloggers without company sanction/middlemen, but those people are few and far between (and often slapped down if they do so).

As a general rule, as Lyons said, companies tend to favor members of the press corps who give the companies they cover positive ink. The "rewards" for good coverage can be anything from exclusive interviews, to early access to news and demo units, to top-level partipation at a news organization's conference. Sometimes it is the public relations (PR) team that decides who is on the "good" list; other times, the execs in charge of the companies tell the PR folks whom they will and won't deal with.

I've gotten good access to some Microsoft teams and execs over the years. I've also had times and circumstances when I've been blocked and banned -- either because of things I wrote and/or fears about what I might write. (For an example of the latter, I can point to my book Microsoft 2.0, for which I was granted no interviews by anyone at an executive level at Microsoft. Luckily, there are still some folks who work at Microsoft who believed that talking to someone who is making an honest effort to tell a story was worth risking the wrath of those wanting to cut off all information from the inside.)

Lyons brings up an interesting point, re: can "fans" of a company, executive or technology provide useful and impartial information about a company.

He writes in his latest Newsweek column:

"The fact is, in the eyes of the media, Apple is the corporate equivalent of Barack Obama - a company that can do no wrong. Even in Silicon Valley, where much of the press corps are pretty much glorified cheerleaders (think of all those slobbering cover stories about the Google guys) Apple's kid-gloves treatment stands out. Reporters don't just overlook Apple's faults; they'll actually apologize for them, or rationalize them away. Ever seen reporters clapping and cheering at a press conference? Happens all the time at Apple events."

I am not as willing as Lyons to throw an entire blogging/press corps under the bus with blanket statements. There's been some great Apple reporting over the years -- so great that Apple sued some of those who conducted it to shut them up. (And was successful, in part, in doing so.)

There are definitely Microsoft fanboys (and girls) who report and blog about the company. But reporters clapping at a Microsoft press conference? Maybe. Somewhere. But I hear/see a lot more jeers than cheers in the Microsoft press rooms and events where I've been present than I noticed the couple of times I've been at an Apple event....

It is possible to hate the businesses/people/products that you cover. Some might claim that kind of attitude might mean you're less at risk of being snowed. But hatred isn't the equivalent of fair. I've tried to walk the line over the years of criticizing Microsoft when I felt it was engaging in behaviors that hurt customers and partners, but acknowledging when the company did the right thing -- a behavior some readers never want to hear/read/believe in which Microsoft can engage.

Over the years, Microsoft has done a lot of things that I've considered wrong-minded -- everything from using its monopoly power to curtail the options of its PC-maker partners, to insisting that Vista, when it originally shipped, was solid (and compatible) enough for consumers and businesses to count on. (Company officials only admitted they overstated Vista's readiness a year after it shipped.)

I think it's possible to be a healthy skeptic. But to be one, you have to be in a position to have enough sources that you can continue to do your reporting even if Microsoft or Apple or which ever company/companies you cover try to punish you by cutting off your access.

Any readers out there want to field any "insider baseball" questions -- soft balls, curve balls, what have you -- about how we Microsoft bloggers/press folks try to do our jobs?

Topics: Apple, CXO, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

46 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • good question

    Well, I would have to say that Mary Jo is one of the most honest of MS bloggers - usually you either you get cheerleaders or haters, but she's very good about criticizing when necessary. I don't think you need to be unduly harsh just to show yourself "objective". Criticism can be constructive and written to show shortcomings that can be overcome, not just lambasted for failure, and thus avoid recrimination by the company.

    It's probably easy to fall into a pattern of making excuses for a company that you like - and yes, Apple has plenty of well-known writers that we all know are apologists - so does Microsoft, so does Sony, etc.

    I would never call any writer a "shill" or any other derogative, though. Shilling, to me, would require a monetary or other compensation, and I don't think any of the major bloggers do so, nor would their employers allow it.

    My question would be, can you ever take anything from a company without an understood agreement? I mean a product that isn't returned, a free software suite or piece of hardware that you get as a "present".

    And if they do send you something like that out of the blue, do you return it? Give it away? Keep it?
    coffeeshark
    • gifts

      Thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

      Gifts: Some news organizations aren't allowed to take any kind of gifts. No pens, no cookies, no chocolate -- and definitely NO PCs, software, etc. Some can keep things if they are $25 or less in value.

      I have accepted a number of loaners of hardware from Microsoft and various vendors -- including Apple, which a couple of years ago loaned me an iMac. Sometimes the "unspoken" agreement is if you keep the stuff, no one will say anything. I return mine, as I don't want anyone to be able to say I took a bribe.

      In cases where I've been given software, I have given a lot of it away to other bloggers who use it for charity give-aways/contests, etc. I also sometimes give it to folks who I know can't afford to buy it and/or to reviewers. I kept a copy of Vista and Office 2007 that I got at the launch. They are still in my closet, as I never installed them on my main work machine, an older X60 Thinkpad. I guess they'll be collector's items pretty soon. :)

      I did keep two bottles of wine that I've gotten from Microsoft over the years. (One was a bottle of champagne signed by Ray Ozzie that some press got at the PDC. I couldn't take it on the plane home, so.... yeah. I drank it.

      MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
      • Another perspective on "gifts"

        The gifts questions is one that I think that outsiders overrate. People on the outside seem to think that if a press hack is given something for free that it will influence the reporting. I guess if a car, yacht or a private jet appeared outside my house then that would be one thing, but so far that's never happened to me :)

        Being in the hardware side of things a lot of tech passes through my hands and while the big stuff always gets returned (PCs, notebooks etc), I also get a lot of smaller stuff that's simply not worth the cost or bother of returning (either to me or the company sending it to me). Some people might think that this is cool, but remember that everyone has finite space in their lab or work area. In this job the excitement of free stuff quickly wears off. Also, when it comes to stuff like CPUs, motherboards and graphics cards, the reference samples you get hanve been handled a lot (and osmetimes badly) and there's no way that you could roll this stuff out into daily use and trust it not to fail prematurely.

        To get around the problems of space I have found ethical ways to get rid of things, and make it a rule not to personally benefit from anything I received for free. Like MJ I try to arrange things so that things go to the people they will do the most good.
        Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • Job? Blogging is a job?

    A reporter I can understand, but a blogger?
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • blogging as a job

      Yes, even without an ax to grind, some of us are making a living by blogging. As we've discussed on ZDNet before, we bloggers get paid by page view...

      The line between reporting and blogging is becoming murkier and murkier. To me, the only real distinction is bloggers admit they are biased.

      MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
      • With all due respect...

        This is not a critic of you but in general Bloggers tend to have lower standards for everything. On ZDNet the editing is poorer, the English composition and structure is poorer, and very few blog posts here have a conclusion statement. Most blog posts seem to be written like a mass informal e-mail.

        Compare this to any published magazine (even ZDNet owned mags) and all of these things are done better.
        T1Oracle
        • With all due respect ...

          ... as someone who has worked both with the printed word and electronically for years, I'm here to tell you that things are changing. Go back ten to fifteen years and the number of eyeballs falling on your work between it being tapped out on a keyboard and it being read by the masses was incredible. Not only did this make the process longer, it made it expensive. Even in print the number of eyeballs between the writer and the end reader is a lot less than it was.

          Bottom line, you the reader have to decide what's important to you. If you want a piece or work that's been edited then you're probably going to have to pay for this (book, newspaper), if you want quick and easy access to information fast and for free (and far in advance of it hitting a newspaper, magazine or book), you're going to have to accept that things have changed.

          Oh, and this whole "blogging" thing - I look at it as nothing more than a way of publishing stuff on the web without having to know how to use HTML, PHP, ASP, FTP and so on.
          Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
          • Blogging or Rehashing?

            I think the one thing that is very key to the topic is how when Macworld or any other Apple press conference occurs, almost every writer at every press outlet has something to say about Apple. Microsoft and Google have been trying to release products at these times trying to steal the thunder, but the drums at Apple get pounded over all of that noise.

            What I get frustrated with is that no other news happens for those few days, as if the rest of the world gets shut down. And when you have a year as disappointing as this one with no big products of the crowd's interest in mind, many people begin to attack with mob mentality. What is even better is that while we were reporting about all the glories of Apple, we had to wait an entire week before some one would ask the question of "Where is all of the cool stuff?"
            As soon as Bennett took the stage, I was asking, "Where's my Mac Mini"

            I can understand some of bleeding across the blog topics, but some, I don't get at all. Storage commenting about super computers and Mac Blog talking about Palm Pre. The one blog I did like has been killed, and that was Real-World IT which actually applied to my world of being a System Administrator.
            nucrash
          • You'd be surprised ...

            "What I get frustrated with is that no other news happens for those few days, as if the rest of the world gets shut down."

            Actually,you'd be surprised how much news dries up at these times. Up against a big Apple or Microsoft press release or announcement, most smaller companies retreat int their shells for a few days. And good luck trying to break any news over those days!
            Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Blogging vs. Reporting...

        I still think the line between reporting and blogging is more clear cut than several.

        1. Do you get sent by a company to report on certain events?

        2. Do you earn a paycheck from a specific company for what you write and not from an ad agency?

        3. Do you get the press pass? (A big distinction for me.)

        As far as I am concerned, most ZDnet Bloggers are reporters, except when they don't do anything but comment on what others report.

        I have an opinion, but as far as I am concerned, some of the talk backs would be considered more of blogging in how they handle giving out opinions.
        nucrash
      • So, are you a blogger or a reporter?

        I find it odd that you claim to unbiased, yet provide the
        distinction that bloggers admit they are unbiased.

        In the end, there is very little distinction. Bloggers, just
        like reporters try to be as controversial as they can in order
        to get the most attention. Your own comments such as
        "we bloggers get paid by page view..." pretty much confirm
        this. This is a page right out of the John Dvorak school of
        journalism I suppose.

        Anyway, your comments regarding Apple's attack on
        bloggers is missing a bit of information. When referring to
        the case Apple won, you should also let people know that
        these were rumor sites that were guilty of publishing
        Apple's trade secrets. That's a bit different shutting down
        a blog site that's merely covering news or expressing
        opinion.

        There are reasons companies like Apple keep things
        secret. For starters, the secrecy alone generates buzz and discussion. Second, Apple's customers don't require a
        roadmap like many business customers do. Third, when
        you're an innovator, you don't want to give the competition
        any more advanced notice than necessary. Contrast this to
        Microsoft's position of announcing products that are still
        on the drawing board in hopes to minimize the
        competitions lead. Fourth, as Dave Lyons mentions, when
        you're pleasantly surprised by new technologies and new
        features there might be reason to clap. Who claps at
        Microsoft product announcements? They're typically not
        breaking new ground and you knew the product was
        coming a long time ago.
        techconc
  • I agree with Dan Lyons...

    But I'll take it a step further. What it has looked like is a page out of run-up to the Iraq war when the VP's office hand picked journalists like Judy Miller from the NYT and other conservative apologists for "access" and used them to intentionally spread lies that were faithfully repeated to the public, all under the guise of "objective journalism".

    I'm glad Dan is calling this for what it is.

    Edit: Oh and btw, I think you MJ are pretty darn good at your job.
    BFD
    • Fake Steve

      Did you agree with Lyons when he was "fake Steve Jobs"
      also? Is antagonism intrinsically more truthful than
      cooperation because.... what.... it's cynical? This just sets
      one mood against another and further mocks the notion of
      "absolute truth".

      My point is, pure objectivity is a myth, and the only untruth
      you'll ever hear on these forums, is the claim of objectivity.
      The only naive person, is the one who believes it. We can
      strive to reduce bias, and the scientific process is the best
      example, but the human animal will never be without it.
      sparkfarmer
      • Well said!

        Everyone is biased, whether we're talking about Dave
        Lyons, Mary Jo Foley or anyone on this thread. I don't trust
        anyone who tries to claim otherwise.

        Newspapers have been endorsing political candidates for
        years. Editors have often dictated what journalists write
        about and are in control of what gets published.
        Independent blogging is probably one of the best forms of
        free speech where people can truly write what they want.

        Also, what do people expect? Should Microsoft or Apple
        give the same treatment to a journalist that constantly
        trashes their products? Should all journalists and bloggers
        be treated equally? Obviously, that's not practical. I'd like
        to see a practical suggestion from those condemning how
        things currently work.
        techconc
  • Objectivity

    ...is something that a lot of blogger don't have and
    that a bunch of journalist claim to have.

    Yet, it is, in my opinion, the greatest skill to
    possess in the blogging world. And that is the
    impression I get when I read your posts MJ, that you
    tried to reason with as little personal bias as
    possible even if I don't agree with you.

    And as for the "insider baseball" questions where do
    you get most of you tips, from other blogs or from
    tipsters?
    Mam00th
    • where do tips come from?

      Hi. I get a lot of emailed tips sent to me from tipsters -- many of whom ask not to be identified. I also see good leads on other blogs and make sure to link those blogs when I riff on their posts.

      When I get a tip, I check it out, even if I know who the "tipster" is. I ask others to see if I can confirm it. I don't run tips without checking them -- or in the rare cases I do, I make it very clear I didn't try or could not confirm it but have reason(s) to believe it.

      When I started reporting at PCWeek a long long time ago, we had a rule: You had to have three independent sources telling you something to consider it "confirmed." I try my best to keep to that standard today.

      It will be interesting to see the extent to which reporting policies like these make it into the general blogosphere ... or don't. If they don't, a writer's reputation will definitely become her/his calling card, even more than it is today, I think.

      MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
  • Interesting point

    This topic brings an interesting thought to mind. For example my blog over at: http://dynamics-ax.blogspot.com focuses on promoting information about Dynamics AX platform and those technologies that surrond it.

    This means information about books, ISV offerings, interviews with Microsoft Execs and other Microsoft partner execs.

    I also opennly push my company Sunrise Technologies, Inc. (www.sunriseconsult.com)

    I write all of this, because I believe in the platform, and believe in helping create a community around that platform: Dynamics AX, SQL Server, SharePoint, .Net, Office, BizTalk Server, etc. etc.

    The intent and purpose of my blog, makes it 100% seem biased, but I don't write about other platforms, so instead of being biased it just... is a blog about a topic: Dynamics AX.

    Now you being a reporter, I see write plenty of things that one would think Microsoft would and would not like. You are reporting news though, and should be less biased than a blog about a specific topic and community would be percieved to be.

    Interesting... thanks!
    -Brandon
    skillaid
  • RE: Rotten reporting: Is it just Apple coverage that 'bites'?

    MJ I think you nailed it in your "blogging" comment - bloggers admit that they have bias.

    Old school mass media still want us to believe they are "unbiased". Which, really, is impossible on the face of it, and undermines their credibility.

    A study of American history will show that the idea of "unbiased" media is a new concept; in the Founder's days it was assumed that anyone who would spend money on ink and parchment clearly had a personal reason for doing so, and his opinions should be viewed in that context.

    I think we Americans should get back to that frame of mind, and bloggers are helping us to do that.

    Scott Braden
    www.netnetweb.com
    Scott Braden
    • BINGO!

      "A study of American history will show that the idea of "unbiased" media is a new concept ..."

      Yep, you nailed that. "Unbiased" is nothing more than a buzzword that tried to make biased views seem like an unbiased, sensible opinion.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • Myopia

    My only concern is that technology, in the larger sense, is
    not served by platform centric blogging. If Walt Mossberg
    is getting some respect, it has to do with his access across
    platforms. There are those who will call him an Apple shill,
    Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Isn't it true however,
    that Microsoft is only truly understood as a business, and
    technologically, relative to it's peers? The opposite is also
    true.

    In light of this, ZDNet encourages the
    compartmentalization of tech. It's not productive. At some
    point this became about logos rather than logic gates. The
    fanboy isn't a reliable source, but neither is the hater.
    Lyons is most certainly that. At the end of the day, "Steve
    Jobs" or "Bill Gates" will have given us years of productivity,
    and indeed, perhaps a career. Lyons has given us? what
    exactly?

    Somewhere in the middle, there is some truth. One of the
    smart aspects of the Apple Mac/PC ads, love them or hate
    them, is that they offer an essential truth. There has not
    been a single ad that has shown Mac or PC alone.
    sparkfarmer