When Gizmodo reported on the next-generation iPhone that had come into its hands, I was as curious as the next geek about what they’d found. But I didn’t think the ends justified the means.
The story begins,
You are looking at Apple’s next iPhone. It was found lost in a bar in Redwood City, camouflaged to look like an iPhone 3GS. We got it. We disassembled it. It’s the real thing, and here are all the details.
“We got it,” they said. How?
There was much speculation about that, but obviously — if the phone was a real prototype — it must have been lost by an Apple employee. That’s why I tweeted, “Some employee is in very deep shit for letting this happen: http://bit.ly/bVN5Ma” But others wondered. Was it planted by Apple? That’s what, for example, Howard Stern guessed on his show yesterday morning. He thought it was a brilliant marketing move by Apple.
But Gizmodo set their record straight, through a much-updated piece titled How Apple lost the next iPhone. After telling the story, at length, of how Gray Powell, an Apple employee, had left it at a restaurant (“The Gourmet Haus Staudt. A nice place to enjoy good German lagers”), Gizmodo unpacks the means by which the phone came into their possession:
There it was, a shiny thing, completely different from everything that came before.
He reached for a phone and called a lot of Apple numbers and tried to find someone who was at least willing to transfer his call to the right person, but no luck. No one took him seriously and all he got for his troubles was a ticket number.
He thought that eventually the ticket would move up high enough and that he would receive a call back, but his phone never rang. What should he be expected to do then? Walk into an Apple store and give the shiny, new device to a 20-year-old who might just end up selling it on eBay?
Weeks later, Gizmodo got it for $5,000 in cash. At the time, we didn’t know if it was the real thing or not. It didn’t even get past the Apple logo screen. Once we saw it inside and out, however, there was no doubt about it. It was the real thing, so we started to work on documenting it before returning it to Apple. We had the phone, but we didn’t know the owner. Later, we learnt about this story, but we didn’t know for sure it was Powell’s phone until today, when we contacted him via his phone.
The apparent purpose of the story is to save Gary Powell’s ass, as well as to cover some of Gizmodo’s as well. It concludes,
He sounded tired and broken. But at least he’s alive, and apparently may still be working at Apple—as he should be. After all, it’s just a stupid iPhone and mistakes can happen to everyone—Gray Powell, Phil Schiller, you, me, and Steve Jobs.
The only real mistake would be to fire Gray in the name of Apple’s legendary impenetrable security, breached by the power of German beer and one single human error.
Additional reporting by John Herrman; extra thanks to Kyle VanHemert, Matt Buchanan, and Arianna Reiche
Update 2: I have added the bit on the $5,000 (in italics) and how we acquired the iPhone, as Gawker has disclosed to every media outlet that asked.
Yesterday the New York Times ran iPhonegate: Lost, Stolen Or A Conspiracy?, by Nick Bilton. The gist:
One big question is how much Gizmodo paid for the phone, and whether keeping it was legal. Nick Denton, chief executive of Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, told The Times the site paid $5,000 for the phone. But still bloggers wondered if it had really paid $10,000.
On Monday, Charles Arthur, Technology blogger for The Guardian, said paying for the phone could mean that Gizmodo was knowingly receiving stolen goods; on Tuesday, citing the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, Mr. Arthur expanded on his theory.
This helped the debate move on to more serious matters: whether the phone was “lost,” or “stolen.” John Gruber, blogger for Daring Fireball, pointed outthat in the eyes of California law, there isn’t a difference. The law states:
One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.
The next big question — whether Gizmodo would turn over the phone to Apple — was answered after a long day of speculation on Monday over itsauthenticity. Gizmodo has reported that it received a letter from Apple’s legal counsel…
Gizmodo complied and returned the phone. Yesterday I tweeted, “Re: bit.ly/d0P4Vo If you found a next-gen iPhone, would you return it — or use it to pull the owner’s pants down?” Thus far, two responses:
- jcmeloni @dsearls I would return it. Really.
- BlackSwanMA @dsearls I would return it and see if they would give me a job, based on background in IT and personal integrity
Of course, what Gizmodo did was an example of investigative journalism at work. Mainstream journals and broadcasters sometimes pay for stories, leads, video and audio recordings, photographs. That’s not unusual. But, as Charles Arthur writes, “As a reporter – and make no doubt, Gizmodo is reporting here, actually doing journalism red in tooth and claw – you inevitably end up walking close to the edge of what’s legal every now and then. Whether it’s being in receipt of confidential information, publishing something that’s potentially defamatory, or standing closer to the front line of a protest than the police would like, you occasionally have to put yourself in some legally-risky positions.”
Many thousands of years ago on the time scale of both the Internet and journalistic practices, specifically in 1971, I wrote a story for a New Jersey newspaper about rural poverty, illustrated by a photo I took of somebody’s snow-covered yard filled with discarded appliances and half-disassembled old cars sitting on cinder blocks. I thought at the time that the photo was sufficiently generic to protect the anonymity of the home’s occupier. I was wrong. The owner called me up and let me have it. I was still a kid myself — just 22 years old — and it was a lesson that stuck with me.
A couple decades later that lesson was enlarged by “Notes Toward a Journalism of Consciousness,” by D. Patrick Miller, in The Sun, a magazine for which I had once been a regular contributor. (No links to the story, but its table of contents is here.) In it Miller recalled his work as an investigative reporter in the Bay Area, and how sometimes he had to cross a moral line. In his case it was gaining the confidence of sources he would later, in some ways, betray — for the Greater Good of the story’s own moral purposes.
Gizmodo poses the moral goodness of its own story against the backdrop of Apple’s fanatical secrecy:
And hidden in every corner, the Apple secret police, a team of people with a single mission: To make sure nobody speaks. And if there’s a leak, hunt down the traitor, and escort him out of the building. Using lockdowns and other fear tactics, these men in black are the last line of defense against any sneaky eyes. The Gran Jefe Steve trusts them to avoid Apple’s worst nightmare: The leak of a strategic product that could cost them millions of dollars in free marketing promotion. One that would make them losecontrol of the product news cycle.
But the fact is that there’s no perfect security. Not when humans are involved. Humans that can lose things. You know, like the next generation iPhone.
Thus the second wrong makes a write, but not a right.
Two years ago, in this post here, I wrote,
Still, I think distinctions matter. There is a difference in kind between writing to produce understanding and writing to produce money, even when they overlap. There are matters of purpose to consider, and how one drives (or even corrupts) the other.
Two additional points.
One is about chilling out. Blogging doesn’t need to be a race. Really.
The other is about scoops. They’re overrated. Winning in too many cases is a badge of self-satisfaction one pins on oneself. I submit that’s true even if Memeorandum or Digg pins it on you first. In the larger scheme of things, even if the larger scheme is making money, it doesn’t matter as much as it might seem at the time.
What really matters is … Well, you decide.
Gizmodo was acting in character here. That character is traditional journalism itself, which is no stranger to moral compromises.
I’m not saying that one must not sometimes make those compromises. We all often do, regardless of our professions. What makes journalism a special case is its own moral calling.
How high a calling is it to expose the innards of an iPhone prototype?
To help decide, I recommend the movie Absence of Malice.
Was malice absent in Gizmodo’s case? And, even if it was, is the story worth what it cost to everybody else involved — including whatever dollar amount Gizmodo paid to its source?
I submit that it wasn’t. But then, I’m not in Gizmodo’s business. I also don’t think that business is journalism of the sort we continue to idealize, even though journalism never has been as ideal as we veterans of the trade like to think it is.