In the old days, it was all so easy. You worked for a newspaper or a magazine. When I began to specialize in broadcast news, we weren’t taken very seriously. In fact, we were looked upon as second-rate, probably because most stations simply read copy off the wire services or summarized them from the local papers. They certainly didn’t put reporters out in the field. I chose the latter route, and, eventually, I was accepted as a real journalist.
Of course, today, newspaper circulations are declining and most of you get your news from radio or TV, Jay Leno, and perhaps Comedy Central. But what about the Internet? Before the age of bloggers, it was pretty clear what an online journalist might be, since such people usually worked for the online version of a traditional news outlet as I did for several years. An independent site, if it could garner enough ads and page views, might also get some degree of recognition, or maybe not.
And then came the blog. You set up a personal site, wrote a personal diary, and that was the price of admission. Since most any online service offers free Web space, millions could join join in. So is this journalism for the rest of us?
Well, bloggers had to be taken seriously when they created a ruckus over at CBS News, in the wake of a certain report about President Bush’s National Guard service. While a huge news organization couldn’t figure it out, bloggers knew in minutes that the documents used to support the story were obvious fakes. A media stalwart was beaten at its own game, and bloggers had to be taken seriously, at least some of them.
But where is the line of demarcation from casual comment to serious journalism? That’s a question that looms heavily in light of the lawsuit by Apple Computer against Think Secret, the popular Mac rumor site. Although some might not characterize publishing rumors as journalism, on the surface it seems that Nick dePlume is following the rules, which includes gathering information, confirming sources and publishing the results. More often than not, he gets it right, and that means he has first-rate sources.
If he worked for CNET and wrote the very same material, there wouldn’t be a question about what he was doing. And, in fact, CNET has, at times, published speculation about future products from Apple and other companies.
So the big question is this: Is Apple just a bully taking advantage of a struggling college student in trying to put a stop to leaks about its new product plans? If the very same story appeared over at CNET, for example, would Apple even consider such an approach?
It’s obvious to me that the lawsuit is not designed to punish Nick, but to discover his sources. Anyone privy to Apple’s trade secrets must sign a rigid confidentiality agreement. If you join one of Apple’s various developer programs, you’ll get an idea of what it entails. You want admission to the “club,” you must agree not to reveal secret information to third parties. There are no ifs, ands, and buts here. If you work for Apple, you will get fired, and the bad marks on your resume would make it extremely hard to find new employment. If you supply Apple with components for its products, expect Apple to look for a new supplier, and if you’re a developer, expect to be removed from the program pronto.
So where does Nick stand in all this? My personal opinion is that, based on what I know of his work, he is a journalist pure and simple. The question arises then as to whether he is allowed to protect his sources. Over the years, reporters have actually been jailed rather than reveal sources it promised to keep secret, although the disclosing corporate secrets isn’t going to put Nick in that situation.
Now Apple certainly has the right to find out the sources of those leaks and do its best to plug them. Does that mean it has the right to sue the journalist who publishes that information? Again, I think it’s more a matter of learning the sources, not harming Nick Ciarelli or the folks who run similar sites. But whether such a legal action will succeed is up in the air. If Apple loses, it will have to find another way to determine the identity of people who violate nondisclosure contracts. If it wins, there will always be appeals, and it may take years for the courts to finally reach a conclusion. That assumes, of course, that a settlement isn’t reached in the meantime.
I find myself in sympathy with both sides. So long as Nick isn’t breaking any laws or overtly encouraging others to violate their oaths of confidentiality, he has the right to continue to publish. At the same time, Apple has the right to protect its trade secrets. I do not want to be in the shoes of the judge who has to sort all this out.
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