Hmm. I know a while ago I said I’d give up on Paul Thurrott, but occasionally, very occasionallly, he manages to say something worthwhile. The question is whether, in Hide The Truth, Here Comes Leander Kahney, he is right to claim that Kahney (who writes the “Cult of Mac” column over at Wired) “likes to sprinkle his articles with anecdotal evidence and quotes from a single source, which he then sells as facts”, and more particularly, whether in Hide Your iPod, Here Comes Bill, Kahney is right to say that Microsoft’s campus at Redmond “is beginning to look like the streets of New York, London and just about everywhere else: Wherever you go, white headphones dangle from peoples’ ears.“
Thurrott says “The big question here, of course, is whether iPod usage at Microsoft is unusually high. That is, after all, the point of the article. Or is Kahney just stretching the truth yet again to write yet another pro-Apple story? That one’s easy, because I visit the Redmond campus several times a year. Kahney’s full of it. Utterly full of it. And I’m tired of this style of journalism.”
This doesn’t quite answer whether Kahney’s story is right. Thurrott doesn’t work at Microsoft. So he wouldn’t actually know whether iPod usage is common there or not. I’d expect he’s only taken on campus by PR people doing it formally. They’re hardly going to flaunt their iPods. (He’s welcome to correct any error I might have made here, in the comments – an outlet he hasn’t afforded Kahney.) Here’s my take.
When I read Kahney’s piece, I thought that what seemed an initially very promising story didn’t have many independent sources to back it up. I don’t care whether they’re named or not, as long as they’re different. (That’s clearly why Mary Jo Foley’s non-comment is in there: the news editor threw the story back and said more people needed to be approached for a quote.) But sometimes you have a good story, and you only need one source, because you know they’re right. The link spammer interview I did for The Register was only one source, but I was sure of the source’s accuracy. Tell political journalists at Wesminster that they’re not allowed a single-source anonymous story, and they’ll just laugh at your naivete. Oh, and a story on a much grander scale, Andrew Gilligan.
Reading it, with (I’m not trying to boast, just lay out my qualifications) ten years’ experience of what goes on in pressured newsrooms, I felt Kahney had got talking to someone at Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit who’d been holding forth, and it got a little out of hand, perhaps. But Kahney only has to have visited the Redmond campus once to get the feel of the place. Hell, I’ve been there. I could write a paragraph of colour. Good journalists, and experienced ones, can do “colour” out of a phone call. Is it true (about the sprouting white headphones)? Define true, then get back to me. True on the day you were there? True every day? True at the moment the manager looked out the window? True, except they don’t wear them outside? Supporting evidence: there’s an internal email – memo? – quoted in the story steering against Microsoft employees using iPods. It’s interesting that Ed Bott weighs in to say: Well, having spent a fair amount of time around Microsoft’s campus, I can tell you that this story is mostly … what’s the word I’m looking for here? Ah yes, bullshit. I have no doubt that lots of Microsoft employees own iPods. Well, which is it, Ed? You’re both tearing down and building up the story. (The comments on Bott’s post, by the way, show that deconstruction is still in its infancy on the Net.)
What tickles me about this criticism is that is – irony shields up! – its source. Ah yes, the person who told us repeatedly, and wrongly, that the HP iPods would play WMA (“A contact close to HP told me point blank that HP was requiring Apple to add WMA support to the iPod”) and that the iPod mini was off to a slow start because it had “only” 100,000 pre-orders, compared to 125,000 for the iBook when that was launched. Significant difference: iPod mini = digital music player, at leading edge; iBook = computer, object that many people familiar with. Hence 100,000 iPod mini pre-orders = BIG success.
Now, nobody minds a journalist being wrong with opinions, though when they keep on being wrong (I mean, don’t get me started on “Windows XP Reloaded” – you can go and Google that one yourself) one begins to ask whether they shouldn’t be listening to more people. Also, we all have our prejudices and blind spots, but when the facts unmask you as wrong, you should at least have the good grace to admit it. I try to.
Overall? Thurrott is finding a mote in his rival’s story and ignoring the beams in his own. What Kahney wrote is hardly the nemesis of journalism. Admit your own mistakes, Paul, and we’ll be a lot more receptive to your criticisms of others.
Update Sunday 11.50pm: I’m beginning to suspect that Paul Thurrott is a cyberbot sent from the future to make us laugh uncontrollably at its expense. His comment on Dell Rumors (sic)? “I assume this is meant to be funny, but if so, it’s pretty darned subtle.” (Gape here.) Err, as subtle as a nine-pound sledge. Or is this cyberbot irony? In which case it’s almost unbearably subtle.
Update 12am: oh dear. In another post the Cyberbot has a dig at Kahney’s semi-rebuttal over this iPod story. Kahney doesn’t offer any more supporting evidence, apart from one Microsoft hiree, but points out that he did at least fact-check whether HP would or would not offer WMA on the iPod; Cyberbot gets all offended, and says that someone at HP told him it would, so nyaah.
Which shows that Cyberbot still doesn’t understand the difference between hack work and journalism: which is the quality of your contacts, and how well you filter them. Kahney is still ahead in this one for me, because nobody has torn down his claims about how many Microsoft staff use iPods. If you think it’s bad journalism, do some better journalism to rebut it. Else, stop whingeing and shut up.