Apple's control of information is a disservice to journalism

Steve Jobs' legendary "reality distortion field" was operating at full power at the recent Macworld Conference & Expo held January 9 to 13 in San Francisco.

Steve Jobs' legendary "reality distortion field" was operating at full power at the recent Macworld Conference & Expo held January 9 to 13 in San Francisco.

Only a promoter like Jobs, cofounder and CEO at Apple Computer, could get a worshipful ovation for announcing a flawed product.

OK, I might be exaggerating, just a bit. The soon-to-be sold MacBook laptop running on an Intel microprocessor, the item to which I refer here, will ship without a built-in modem - a thoroughly bizarre omission given that many folks travel with their laptops. Apple calls this a feature. I call it a flaw.

Many of Apple's fans are so uncritical that they are defending this decision. Such folks are the same breed who took the company's side last year when it sued Web sites for reporting leaked information about upcoming products.

Over the years, Apple has managed to combine the best and worst in PR. Few companies manage their messages with such vigilance. Fewer still do it with such arrogance.

Let me state a conflict of interest at the outset. At the request of lawyers for several Web sites Apple has sued, I've filed court declarations to say that, in my opinion, these sites have been performing a kind of journalism. (And no one's paying me to say so.)

I'm no fan of corporate information lockdowns in general. But I'm downright baffled to watch a company charge after some of its biggest fans this way. I can understand why Apple folks might grind their collective teeth when rumor sites have accurate reports on what's coming. Yet those sites serve a valuable journalistic function - and their existence has, in my view, served Apple, as well.

The "Big Announcement" strikes me as an increasingly irrelevant tactic. There are times when it's still a sensible idea, such as when a company is telling the world about something truly game-changing, as was last year's closely held announcement that Apple's laptop and desktop computers would soon be running on Intel chips - not the PowerPC models of recent times - or the original unveiling of the iPod.

By trying (and largely succeeding) to control every iota of information, Apple ultimately does itself no favors. And when the company persuades a judge to allow it to turn press releases into trade secrets, as it has done in recent cases, the result is a threat to business reporting in general.

I don't mean to pick on Apple alone here. It's also worth noting Google's foolish shunning of CNET after a reporter smartly used Google's own technology on its top executive to demonstrate how much we can learn about each others' private lives via the search engine, a policy the company wisely rescinded not long afterward.

Apple gets away with this stuff in large part because it has such acolytes and because it makes products with such high style and function (I'm a Mac user, too). I'm willing to bet the company would have even more fans if it tempered the control-freakery.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor.

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