A Gizmodo writer has been banned from CES for a prank. But when I see some fellow press damning us for the joke, I feel sorry for them: When did journalists become the protectors of corporations? When did this industry, defined by pranksters like Woz, get so serious and in-the-pocket of big business? This is totally pathetic.
Consumer electronics tech journalism is very tricky. Those who strictly cover commercial CE depend on a powerful handful of companies for the very lifeblood of their content. That's a dangerous position. A "favour" by a company can turn into the laziest kind of "scoop" imaginable, a scrap from the dinner table for the dogs of journalism. And every gadget journalist has wrestled with his conscience as he gains more access and becomes inseparable from the industry and depends on more and more of these scoops.
But bloggers and trade journalists, so desperate for a seat at the table with big mainstream publications have it completely backwards: You don't get more access by selling out for press credentials first chance you get, kowtowing to corporations and tradeshows and playing nice; you earn your respect by fact finding, reporting, having untouchable integrity, provocative coverage and gaining readers through your reputation for those things. Our prank pays homage to the notion of independence and independent reporting. And no matter how much access the companies give us, we won't ever stop being irreverent. That's what this prank was about and what the press should understand.
Critics talk about the prank costing dollars and jobs. Motorola said "no harm, no foul" and enjoyed the joke. (Although they will be checking every body cavity I have for IR blasters next press conference.) Were there AV techs who got in trouble? They need only show their bosses the video to be blame-free.
Many of our harshest critics have done far worse than clicking off a few TVs. I'm talking about ethical lapses such as accepting paid junkets to Japan by Nikon, or free trips to Korea by Samsung. Turning a blind eye to Apple's mistakes when they didn't make an iPhone SDK and sought to lock down the handset. Stock prices torn downward by publishing incorrect leaked info. Writing about companies that also pay you for advertorial podcast work. All of these examples are offences from the last year. And I consider those offences far worse than our prank, because it ultimately it puts the perpetrators on the wrong team. As one reporter put it while chiding me, "Journalists are guests in the houses of these companies." Not first and foremost! We are the auditors of companies and their gadgets on behalf of the readers. In this job, integrity and independence is far more important than civil or corporate obedience. Every tech journalist has to decide whether or not he's writing for companies or for readers. When they start writing for the companies, covering all their press releases and regurgitating marketing jargon, you do no one any favours (not even the companies, which already hire press release machines).
Gizmodo was given access to film and interview Bill Gates again this year. Some pubs might have softened up on questioning him, but we didn't: We got the guy to open up and talk about Windows and its shortcomings like he never has before, not even on 60 minutes. If that's not journalism, I don't know what is. If we had been in the pocket of this industry, we never would have asked such a risky question—and probably wouldn't have been granted the interview to begin with.
In closing, I will fill you in on our little secret: TVs turn back on when you press the power button a second time. So, I can assure you, everything is going to be OK once the companies find their clickers between the couch cushions of our prank and your obedience. Will our critics find it as easy to turn their integrity back on? I doubt it.