This is why we can’t have nice things…

July 31, 2009

The Internet is going haywire over the case of Gary McKinnon, the autistic hacker the U.S. is trying to extradite from the U.K. to stand trial for snooping around in NASA and Department of Defense computers seven years ago.

The U.K. is especially in an uproar, with McKinnon supporters screaming that an autistic man shouldn’t serve 60 years in prison, or that McKinnon shouldn’t be tried in the U.S., but in the U.K. instead.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in reading about the McKinnon case, it’s how ignorant the rest of the world is about the United States. And make no mistake: They are ignorant. Appallingly so.

Let’s backtrack for just a moment:

McKinnon admits that he broke the law by hacking computers belonging to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA between 1999 and 2002. He’s a UFO conspiracy theorist, who  took it upon himself to dig around in U.S. government computers in search of proof that the United States was hiding proof that UFOs exist (I’ve seen no report indicating he found such proof). While snooping, he left messages, warning he would continue to disrupt and accusing the government of being behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Needless to say, he was caught. And since then, the U.S. government has been trying to bring him across the pond to stand trial. And, in the intervening years, he’s managed to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. The maximum sentence for his crime is 60 years in federal prison.

To get a flavor of how the Brits are looking at the case, check out Henry Porter’s blog in the Guardian. To save you time, I’ll excerpt:

“…over 55 British defendants have been forced to submit to the often crude and vindictive criminal justice system of the United States. Sixty years for a rather hopeless individual who believes in UFOs is obviously absurd, and British law should have the ability to ensure that a citizen is not exposed to harsher treatment in America, then Americans accused of the same crime would face here.”

Absurd, Henry?

Here’s what’s absurd: Acting as if the U.S. should treat McKinnon with kid gloves because he’s a Brit. That’s absurd. The U.S. has a “crude and vindictive criminal justice system?” Really? We have trials where the accused is innocent until proved guilty. We have a system where Mr. McKinnon will be given attorneys to represent him at trial, to make sure he’s fairly treated. We have juries who are charged with hearing both sides of the story before judging a defendant’s guilt. Sure, our system is not perfect. But it’s not crude.

In fact, if Porter — or the myriad Internet experts — had done a shred of homework, here’s what they’d learn:

1. Though the maximum term for the crime McKinnon is charged with is 60 years, there is little to no chance he’ll actually receive that sentence. The maximum is reserved for the very worst offenders. It’s entirely possible that McKinnon would serve no prison time whatsoever.

2. Judges weigh many different factors in determining sentences. In this case, McKinnon’s mental state, his behavior since he was arrested, his mental state at the time of the crimes and the actual damage caused can all be considered mitigating factors.

3. If in fact McKinnon is sentenced to federal prison, it will most likely not be in a maximum-security facility with violent criminals, but in a medium- to minimum-security facility where white-collar criminals generally serve. In America, we call these “country club” facilities. Considering his special needs, he would be closely monitored for his own safety.

If McKinnon was inwilling to suffer the consequences of breaking U.S. law, he should have taken care not to break U.S. law. He was completely aware of what he was doing. He carried on, and should therefore suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.

The larger issue here is ignorance. The fact that Brits continue to holler about this case as though Americans have no other goal than to capture, beat and imprison a pathetic autistic man does nothing less than illustrate the arrogance and elitism — unwarranted, mind you — of Europeans, who believe we are uncivilized (we spell that with a ‘z’ here, thank you) barbarians following Hamurabi’s code.

When all is said and done, this case will prove to be much ado about nothing. McKinnon will serve about 18 months in Club Fed. And then he’ll go home. And it will be over.

But Americans should take note of what Europeans think of us. And we need to ask ourselves whether we prefer to bend over backwards to prove ourselves to them, or stand up for ourselves and lead by example.

I, for one, choose the latter.


AP just doesn’t understand the Internet.

July 29, 2009

If the Associated Press wasn’t so important, I would laugh hysterically at the utter foolishness it’s been displaying. Unfortunately, we need the AP, despite the arguments to the contrary, which makes the organization’s complete lack of understanding the Internet quite terrifying.

AP claims the Internet is stealing the news. Of course Google is the big, bad bully in the equation, but even bloggers, AP says, are stealing journalists’ work, by posting headlines and links to the original stories. To counteract the thievery, AP says it will roll out DRM on the news, with some bizarre news registry idea that will use tracking beacons and other Big Brother technology to tell AP exactly how its news is being used.

Look, I understand the fear of the Internet. I come from a newspaper company that was terrified of spreading news online. But by the time I left, the online division I headed up was generating revenue, drawing readers, and building value. I never worried about whether Google was stealing my headlines. In fact, I wanted Google to index my headlines.

What AP doesn’t seem to understand is that Google drives traffic; it doesn’t steal traffic. Google has no content of its own; it merely directs users to the content you’ve got. AP should beg, borrow and steal to ensure its stories are linked up properly to drive readership. Instead, we get this.

The AP’s job is to bring together and disseminate the best, most important journalism. To do that, it must take advantage of all possible mediums. I argue that AP’s mission (and the mission of every journalist) should be to serve the public’s best interest — not its own. Any time you try to keep the news from the public, you are abdicating your responsibility to those you’re supposed to serve.

Not long ago, the AP contacted a member organization, demanding the paper remove an embedded AP video from its website. The paper, of course, was dumbfounded: The video came from the AP’s own YouTube account, and an embed code was provided.

I think that vignette shows everything you need to know about AP’s understanding of the Internet. You can’t report news and horde it. You can’t get attention and credit if we can’t link to it. And you can’t get paid if nobody cares anymore.

Obama attacks first, apologizes never.

July 26, 2009

How flabbergasting that President Obama felt compelled last week to publicly blast a police officer who arrested Harvard teacher Henry Louis Gates Jr.

With every challenge our nation is facing, Obama decided to use his bully pullpit to attack officer James Crowley for acting “stupidly” in arresting Gates while investigating the report of a break-in at Gates’ house.

According to police reports, Crowley was called to Gates’ house after a passerby noticed two men apparently forcing their way through the front door. (This passerby had no way of knowing one of the men was Gates, or that his front door was jammed — she’s a good Samaritan, just looking out for the neighborhood). Crowley reports that when he arrived, he saw Gates inside the foyer, and asked him to step outside. Gates refused, asking “Why? Because I’m a black man in America?”

Obviously this transaction didn’t start off well.

Gates demanded to see Crowley’s identification, and got on the phone, demanding to speak with the police chief and warning Crowley he had “no idea who he was dealing with.” He accused Crowley of being a racist cop several times.

The situation escalated. Crowley warned Gates several times, according to the report, before cuffing him, consulting with other officers on the scene and bringing him downtown.

According to Obama, Crowley’s the one to blame here. The officer’s been accused of racism and racial profiling, while Gates is seen as the victim. Obama has backed down from his original stance, but has stopped short of apologizing, or pointing out it was Gates who acted stupidly.

Gates didn’t have any reason to believe he was being targeted. In fact, if he’d come to the door and said “What can I help you with?,” he and the officer probably would have shared a laugh about the busted door and the good Samaritan. He probably would have gone to bed that night feeling glad he lived in a neighborhood where people look out for each other.

Truth is, Gates attacked Crowley because Crowley is a white cop. If Gates did his homework, he’d have found Crowley’s exemplary record — along with the fact that Crowley taught a class on racial profiling. He’d know just how wrong he was. Gates would be able to better point the accusations of racism at himself.

Gates and Obama are guilty of the same thing: Applying some Rodney King-like scenario to a situation where it’s not warranted. In the process, they widen the gap in race relations. Should a white cop be scared to do his job? Should he indeed treat a black man differently than he would a white man?

Obama said that perhaps he was quick to judge the situation because he knows Gates. But his reaction dredges up memories of  his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was notorious for his racist rants. And it took extreme public pressure for Obama to distance himself from Wright.

In Gates, we see a scholar, who is working on a PBS documentary about racial profiling, who, rather than regretting his own actions, continues to assert that he’s the victim:

“If my experience leads to the lessening of the occurrence of racial profiling, then I would find that enormously gratifying,” Gates wrote. “Because, in the end, this is not about me at all; it is about the creation of a society in which ‘equal justice before law’ is a lived reality.”

Gates, and his friend Obama, need to realize that Gates is living the reality of “equal justice before law.” Because any person — white or black — who is as beligerent as he was deserves to be arrested.

And Americans deserve better than the thoughtless recriminations and condemnations of a thoughtless president.

Sometimes the customer is wrong.

July 23, 2009

Up until a couple of hours ago, I respected Jeff Jarvis. I follow him on Twitter and read his posts. Like me, Jeff recognizes we all have the tools to be publishers. He’s a frequent critiic of those old dinosaurs in the print industry who fail to build value in their products but look for handouts to stay afloat.

Earlier this week, however, Jarvis started pumping out diatribes against his cable provider, Cablevision. I didn’t care, quite honestly, because I’m a Time Warner customer. I know little to nothing about Cablevision. Probably will never have to. Today, however, I became interested after hearing the story of therocco and ComcastBonnie…a disgruntled Comcast subscriber and the Comcast tech who tried to help him. I thought maybe I’d blog a bit about how badly therocco misinterpreted the situation (you can read therocco’s take at and decided to read up on Jarvis’s experience.

What I found was truly disheartening.

I’ll save you all the details (you can read them for yourself at At first, I really felt for the guy. He says his Internet was out, and the cable company told him it would be three days before they’d get a tech to his house. Ouch, right?

So, Jarvis did what any reasonable person would do: mentions that he’s buddies with the head of the company (he is not). When the name-dropping doesn’t work (the Comcast employee called Jarvis’s bluff), Jarvis took to Twitter to bash Cablevision. And then he blogged about it.

Know what Jarvis did to everyone who stood up for the cable company? He checked their IP addresses. And berated them in his comments section. Because he’s Jeff Jarvis, and he can’t be wrong. Except he was wrong. Not only was he wrong, but he was lying.

In his blog, Jarvis states “they offer to send someone out … in three days.”

The ellipses hides a very important fact Jarvis left out: He was offered service the next day, and he turned it down (this according to a comment left by someone Jarvis identified as a Cablevision employee). They did not screw him by telling him to wait three days, as he led his readers to believe; the next day wasn’t good enough for Jeff Jarvis, who thought he was entitled to service NOW, dammit, because he has a blog!

So, when the powerful Jeff Jarvis turned down the next-day service, he was offered the next best thing: an appointment in three days.

Jarvis’s post is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who offered him help.

It also puts an enormous dent in Jarvis’s credibility when he lauds the truthfulness of online journalism; if the evangelists are liars, is the religion a sham?

Jeff, you owe your readers an apology. Anything less is demanding less of yourself than you do of your targets in the news industry.

The bigger point this leads to is the fallacy that the customer is always right. Because, sometimes, the customer is wrong. And sometimes (as in the cases of therocco and Mr. Jarvis) the customer is so hell-bent on getting things their way, that they completely lose sight of the idea that we should treat each other with at least a degree of respect. When that happens, you become a bad customer. And bad customers are bad for business.

Many companies keep lists of bad customers — people who call with unreasonable demands or become irate or insulting when things don’t go their way. And make no mistake: Those customers are treated differently. And not in a good way. That’s because they help destroy employee morale and take up valuable time and resources. They will mostly likely never be satisfied. In that case, it’s better to not do business with them at all.

I do believe companies should bend over backward to serve customers. But the fact that a person pays for a service — any service — does not entitle them to treat employees without dignity.

For more on this, check out this very well-done piece on why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a new, much more reasoned post on his blog, which you can find here. I give Jeff credit for listening, and for admitting there was more to the story.

Sorry. I can’t resist.

July 21, 2009

I have to start this off with a disclosure: I believe Apple products are good. I do not hate Apple.

With that out of the way, I’m going to point out, probably for that eight billionth time, that I hate the smug, self-righteous, unquestioning, unflinching and undying loyalty fanboys have for Apple products — attitude so well epitomized in the company’s “I’m a Mac” ads (you know, the ones where Macs are for the cool, hip people who zip through worry-free lives while PCs are for dorks and dweebs who either don’t know better or enjoy having useless machines).

Didn’t those ads at least seem effective? Did you ever fire up your PC — even once — and wonder why you hadn’t switched to Apple yet? I did. And the answer turned out to be really simple: I don’t want to be one of those people. The ones from that commercial. No thanks.

Microsoft has finally come back with a series of ads that hit Apple where it lives. They show people (actors) on budgets, challenged to find a computer with particular specs on a budget. Invariably, Apple machines don’t fit the bill. But there’s a PC that will — and the lucky actor usually has money to spare.

Apple is not happy about these ads. Not happy at all.

In fact, Apple dislikes the ads so much, its lawyers have demanded Microsoft pull them immediately.

It’s hard for Apple to make a case that the commercials are untrue — especially when their “I’m a Mac” ads are laden with exaggeration and tall tales. But it certainly appears that the ads are working. BrandIndex says Microsoft’s so-called value perception has risen steadily since the campaign began in March, while Apple’s has fallen.

Some of this value perception may have nothing at all to do with these ads. A year ago, carrying a cup of Starbucks (like owning a MacBook) was a status symbol. Today, it’s just seen as frivolity. If you don’t need to spend the money, don’t do it…

And sales figures aren’t looking any better.

Apple just fell from fourth place to fifth place in US computer sales, overtaken by Toshiba. That’s right, folks: Toshiba.

One would expect HP and Dell to lead that pack. And Acer (No. 3) has made a strong showing in the past couple of years — especially the second quarter of 2009, when its shipments increased 51 percent. Toshiba’s shipments were up nearly 34 percent. Apple’s shipments, by contrast, dropped 12.4 percent. And Apple’s market share? About 7.6 percent in the US. Under 5 percent worldwide.

This is a pretty clear case of Apple getting  exactly wha t it deserves. Its spin machine has created this whole idea that Apple products “just work” (ask me about my iPod Touch someday), that PCs just aren’t capable of artistic work and can’t be fun (uhhh…any Mac users doing much gaming these days?). As I’ve said before, the Apple team sells products based on claimed difficiencies of PCs, instead of on its own strengths. And now, finally, Microsoft has found a way to put forth the value question. And the answer, really, is quite simple.

Arrington is a jerk.

July 17, 2009

Much has been made this past week about the stolen Twitter documents, and whether Michael Arrington was right to release the documents on TechCrunch.

Arrington’s reasoning for releasing the documents is pretty sound, even if he has taken a considerable amount of heat for the decision. Generally speaking, the rule is that a journalist should never keep information from the public. If you have the information, you should always use it. Arrington is right when he asserts that Twitter is of interest to the public, and it certainly shows restraint that he didn’t release the more personal information he received.

Every journalist (myself included) has at some point come across confidential or leaked documents or information that needs to get out to the public. As a crime and courts reporter, I once found confidential settlement papers for the trial I was covering sitting on top of a waste bin in the court house men’s room — while the trial was in session. I quickly wrote down what I saw. I didn’t take the document or print it, but I did question the attorneys in the case, who confirmed the details of the settlement. None of them asked where I got the information. The next day, I had an exclusive story that impacted several thousand people. The deal was eventually rejected after public outcry. I had done my job and protected the public good.

But there’s a wrinkle in the case of the Twitter documents. Arrington didn’t find the documents in a public bathroom. And they weren’t leaked to him. They were stolen by a hacker who broke into Twitter’s Google Docs and took whatever he wanted. I’m guessing these thefts are being investigated by the proper authorities.

Journalists are taught never to accept information obtained by illegal means. And the fact that Arrington has those documents means he is in possession of stolen property — quite possibly an accessory to a crime. If I were running that newsroom, I would have politely turned down the hacker, and told him to peddle his wares somewhere else. I may even have taken the step of reporting him to authorities. After that, I would have written a story pointing out that a hacker had obtain confidential Twitter documents and was attempting to peddle them to news agencies.

Sadly, this case displays exactly what newspaper journalists are warning us about: the lack of standards in online journalism. And Arrington isn’t the only one who has displayed some questionable judgment here. Alley Insider has published a rundown of the most interesting documents (with links), and several other sites have done so as well.

As Leo Laporte recently pointed out, Arrington is a jerk and a troll. TechCrunch is the Weekly World News of tech journalism, because its head honcho is all about linkbait. Certainly, in this instance, Arrington managed to get people talking about TechCrunch. And, as we all know, no press is bad press. But is it a wonder that Pete Cashmore’s Mashable, which didn’t publish the documents, has overtaken TechCrunch in popularity?

Let this be a lesson to web publishers everywhere. Journalism ethics is an easy thing to teach; you can do it in just one sentence: Don’t be a jerk. Arrington apparently hasn’t learned that. And, in the process, he’s given his profession a black eye.

Newspapers fail the value test.

July 6, 2009

No matter where you look, there’s debate over whether newspapers can be saved, whether they should be saved, how they can be saved, how the Internet should be stunted to protect newspapers. Everyone argues as if everyone has something to lose. Newspapers are getting evermore desperate as the “end” seemingly grows nigh, and in the process they’re finding ways to hasten their demise.

Take my local metro daily, for example. Faced with a dramatic drop in advertising revenue, the Syracuse Post-Standard has eliminated jobs, trimmed the number of pages printed per day, cut out large swaths of national and international news and redesigned to make the paper a faster read. The result? A less valuable printed publication.

The Post-Standard can now be flipped through in mere minutes — faster if you don’t look at the sports section. I do applaud the decision to cut out much of the national and international news. Though I know the paper has taken much criticism for it, anything that isn’t local news is just old. Unfortunately, they did that while also cutting local news staff positions, which means not only are you losing world news, but there are fewer local stories as well.

A quick point before I go on: The silliness about the newspaper debate is that we continue to act as if newspapers are the only true journalism. They are not. Newspapers are merely the publishing vehicle (an expensiver, bad-for-the-ennironment vehicle) for journalism, and can be replaced with something better, cheaper, faster. But I digress.

If the goal here is the survival of newspapers, the solution is to add value and revenue. My local paper has cut value in order increase the profit margin. Readers aren’t that stupid; if you give us a product that is less valuable today than it was yesterday, it becomes easier for us to stop paying for it. The solution? Play to your strength. Increase the local news content to valuable proportions. Don’t play to the Internet audience by running small print pieces that drive traffic to the larger pieces online; run shorter pieces online that drive the traffic to your print pieces.

Newspapers are not struggling because of the Internet. They’re struggling because they don’t know how to leverage the Internet. And they’re struggling because they are making poor choices to bolster revenue during a time when everyone is struggling.

Ad revenue is down across the board. That has very little to do with newspapers and a whole lot to do with the economy. Like most other media, newspapers have made bank by chasing national accounts. When those accounts dry up, the loss is tough to swallow. But certainly the same has been true over the past few years in television and radio. Even large websites that rely on national advertising to survive are feeling the pinch. Unfortunately, newspapers took that revenue decline and sounded the death knell, rather than tout value.

One of the first rules of sales is to concentrate on your deliverable. What do you do better than anyone else? In the case of advertising, what does your customer get for the money they spend? Newspapers consistently (and rightfully) have found it difficult to articulate the reasoning behind high advertising rates. The answer, I would have said a week ago, is value.

The value is in the quality of writing, the depth of the reporting, the adherence to strict rules of ethics. Right?

Unfortunately, the Washington Post has now done a bang-up job of cutting that argument off at the knees with its recent pay-for-play scandal.

In order to boost revenue, the paper sent out invitations to an exclusive “salon” at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home, where for $25,000 to $250,000 lobbyists and association executives could get off-the-record access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and WaPo reporters and editors.

To me, this looks like an act of desperation. The paper is willing to sell its integrity, tarnish its reputation and defile the very essence of the beast — as long as they stay in business.

Again, they miss the value train.

If newspapers are to survive, they have to start by concentrating on what they do best. Even in difficult times like these, they need to resist the urge to run on skeleton crews and chop out large sections of content. They must put out better products than ever before to prove their worth. And, like every other American business, if they can survive through these tough economic times, they’ll emerge stronger when the economy rebounds.

It’s time to work hard, not get desperate.