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Gizmodo on journalism

In the aftermath of last week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the trade group mounting that epic gadget-fest has banned a reporter from the Gizmodo website. The reporter -- one Richard Blakeley -- used a gadget modeled after the TV-B-Gone to turn off an assortment of display screens at the show, including ones used during a presentation by Motorola. He recorded the pranks and posted a short video on Gizmodo, with an intro by the site's editor, Brian Lam. ("It was too much fun, but watching this video, we realize it probably made some people's jobs harder, and I don't agree with that (Especially Motorola).")

Lam's apologia today was wrong on at least one point: Blakeley hasn't been banned for life, at least not yet. The Consumer Electronics Association, which did more than ever before to accommodate bloggers this year, is still figuring out what to do about him and his employer. And while I try to see the humor in what Blakeley did, I have trouble finding any upside.

Contrary to what Lam wrote today -- "Our prank pays homage to the notion of independence and independent reporting" -- the stunt did the opposite. It made Gizmodo seem unclear on the whole concept of reporting. Sabotaging someone's presentation may be good for a few laughs, but it doesn't say anything about one's ability to think critically or do good research. Did Gizmodo go to CES to learn as much as it could about the industry it covers, or to drive as much traffic as it could to its site?

Lam also accused critics of protecting the corporations they write about, but that's not what's really at issue here. He's feeling defensive is because his critics are defending the rules by which journalists play, foremost among them being that we don't participate in what we cover. Yes, journalists can change the course of events (Watergate being the obvious example), but they do so by bringing facts to light that disrupt plans and empower the public. That sounds self-important, I know, and I don't mean to suggest we're all on a mission. But the reason we don't pull pranks at demonstrations is because we're there to convey what people would have seen or heard had they been there themselves, as well as try to answer the questions they would have asked. That's why Gizmodo got 12 (count 'em, twelve) staffers in for free.
My largest complaint with Lam is his argument that the prank proved his company's independence and irreverence. No, Gizmodo's coverage has to prove that independence, day in and day out -- the same as for everybody else in this business. Lam doesn't seem to understand this. Consider the following excerpt from his post:

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 "favor" 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.

How is that different, exactly, from covering any other topic? Thanks in part to the influx of great blogs and intrepid bloggers, it's hard to find a subject that's not intensely competitive. That's a good thing. But it also puts every reporter in the position of having to develop the relationships needed to get stories ahead of everyone else while still guarding his or her objectivity. A "powerful handful of (fill in the blank)" are doling out exclusives and currying favor just about everywhere, from the White House to the local zoning board. In sum, there's nothing special about Gizmodo's mission, at least not in a journalistic sense. Like the rest of us, it's only as good as its staff's research, thinking and ability to articulate what they find. It's just too bad that on one of its many posts from CES, Gizmodo decided to use a TV-B-Gone instead of its brains.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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