The Latest Articles (Dec. 12, 2014)

My recent articles include:

Three Serious Weekend Stories: Encryption's Ease, Apps' Ecosystems, Patreon's Abusers

For the holiday weekend, I wrote three rather serious stories that may be of interest.

In the Economist, you'll find my feature at the start of the Science and Technology section in print (read online). I noticed a trend that was accelerating: it's easier than ever for people with no interest in tweaking configuration settings or installing special software to have robust encryption for messaging, email, and elsewhere — so good, in fact, that governments are now complaining. My editors agreed, and "Cryptography for dummies" is the result. Governments can still obtain what they need, but not "wholesale": they can't vacuum up all our data and sift it. They'll have to use better police work, and our privacy will be better protected.

At Six Colors, Jason Snell's Apple-focused site, I wrote about the tradeoffs between Web apps and native apps. The difference isn't so much the coding for a lot of apps, which are often thin wrappers around the equivalent of web sites; rather, it's often about the payment, notification, and offline storage offered in an app ecosystem.

And on this very blog, I explained the trouble Patreon is having with settling a policy about users of its subscription-style crowdfunding site that supports creators in the regular production of work. Patreon's policies and enforcement have allowed a literal national socialist and many harassers and abusers to stay onboard. Should Patreon be more determined in kicking out people who, not on Patreon's site, engage in behavior that violates its terms of service?


The Latest Articles and Podcasts

As usual, I've been a busy boy, especially regarding podcasts. I have three podcasts I want to launch, and when the The Magazine finishes its run in three weeks, I'll be gearing up to work on all of those. In the meantime, I'm recording all over and filing articles like mad, too. (I've got three more articles queued up that should run later this week at Macworld, the Economist, and Six Colors.)

Recent articles:

Recent podcast appearances:

  • Random Trek, "Collective" from Voyager, back in August. This is Scott McNulty's bold project to randomly go through every episode across all Star Trek series and movies.
  • The Incomparable has split up its radio-play specials into bite-sized servings as The Incomparable Radio Theater! Listen to me as Nicola Tesla, with as good a Serbian accent as I can muster, in Two-Fisted Tales of Tesla (show episodes 0.2 and 0.5). You can also hear me with an exceptionally plummy accident in 0.1 as a character in The Fog.
  • Jason Snell and Dan Moren had Jacqui Cheng and me as guests on Clockwise episode 63 (Nov. 20). It's a strict 30-minute format. In a separately available bonus question, I explain the joys of the Bed Buddy.
  • Jason and I recorded a new episode of The Periodicalist, my irregular show about the future of publishing. In "Episode IV: A New Beginning," we talk about how a company with all the advantages of IDG fell into the innovator's dilemma, me shutting down The Magazine, and Jason booting up several new efforts in his new career.
  • On the Incomparable's main podcast, I appear in episode 220, "Authentic Cop Mustache," discussing webcomics; and episode 221, "Do the Hand-Wavy Thing," rounding  up the recent Doctor Who season. Listen to the extra for episode 221, "Gerbils and Tamagotchis."
  • I appeared on MedaTwits, a PBS videocast/podcast, on Nov. 14 to talk about new models for long-form journalism.

Mediatwits: Long-Form Journalism

I appear on today's Mediatwits, speaking from my experience at The Magazine. The show's description:


Long-form journalism is seeing something of a resurgence on the web. While many people believe digital media has pushed people toward short, bite-sized listicles, deeper stories continue to resonate when they hit the right audience. Plus, online publications such as Atavist, The Verge and even BuzzFeed regularly publish long-form pieces.

Have Red Pen, Will Travel: Hanging up My Shingle

My labor of love for the last two years, The Magazine, will finish up with its last regular issue on December 18. It's possible we'll do special issues or other work in the future, but we'll end subscriptions then. I'll be resuming my full-time freelance career, and have been ramping up where and how much I write already.

But I'm also considering part-time or full-time editorial jobs that would allow me to stay in Seattle, or editorial consulting work on setting up platforms or production flows. I'd love to bring my experience in podcast hosting and production, electronic periodical publishing, print publishing, and managing app development to a site or publication that's trying to chart a course forward in all those directions.

I've been writing professionally since 1994, starting with trade publications, and, by 1998, contributing to mainstream news and business print and online periodicals, like the New York Times, Wired, Business 2.0 (columnist), Popular Science, and the Seattle Times (columnist).

Since 2005, I've written regularly for the Economist, contributing heavily in the last four years. Since 2010, I've written 350 online items for the Economist, mostly for its Babbage blog (now retired and archived) about the intersection of technology and science with culture. I have also contributed business and arts stories. I appear regularly in its Technology Quarterly section (in print and online), had my story featured on the American edition's cover in March 2013, and twice had my stories on the cover of the Technology Quarterly section. (Some links to articles are at the end of this post.) With the shift away from blogs at the Economist, I now contribute regularly to the online sections for Business & Finance and Science & Technology.

I've also had long-time homes at Boing Boing and Macworld. I regularly write both news and long features for Boing Boing, while I've contributed reviews and features for nearly 15 years to Macworld. I recently signed up to write a weekly security and privacy column for Macworld about issues of interest to Mac and iOS users. For nearly 20 years, I've written and contributed to TidBITS; I wrote the code for their content-management system and consulted deeply on the launch and first year of their user-supported journalism subscriptions.

At The Magazine, I started as executive editor just after its October 2012 launch, and bought the publication from its founder, Marco Arment. I've produced every issue since #3, meeting an every-other-week production schedule as a staff of one with contract help for over two years. We'll finish out with #58. I've edited over 200 features, most of them long-form, and many of them reported, working closely with writers, photographers, and artists.

As part of The Magazine, I planned and executed the successful crowdfunding of a hardcover anthology, with 1,200 advance buyers before the book hit the press. I hired designers, and carried out every stage of production: funding, accounting, programming a user reward management system, creating and releasing digital rewards, working with the printer, and managing the logistics of shipping books to 50 states and dozens of countries.

I'm also a long-time podcaster, with my first series in 2006 (about Wi-Fi). I'm a regular guest on the sci-fi/fantasy podcast, The Incomparable, and just concluded a nearly two-year run of The New Disruptors, a podcast about creative people using new tools to connect with audiences and own their work from conception to distribution.

I can write, edit words and audio, interview, design, and manage. I believe I'm good to work with, and I can provide references from people I've worked for as well as people who have worked with me. I love collaboration.

Some of the clips of the last couple of years that I'm most proud of:

Recent Articles

I've been writing quite a bit more these days in addition to writing more blog entries in a few weeks than I probably have in years. Here are a few of my recent articles:

When bigger isn't better: New technologies threaten DigitalGlobe's commercial satellite-imagery business (Economist, November 3)

Ghosts in the machine language: The latest high-profile hacks result from benign neglect, and won't be the last (Economist, October 24)

Bribing the users: Apple Pay may not be as successful as Starbucks in changing America's payment habits (Economist, October 21)

FCC fines Marriott $600,000 for jamming hotel Wi-Fi (Boing Boing, October 3)

Security cruft means every exploit lives forever (Boing Boing, September 25)

Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and… Google Fiber? (Six Colors, October)

A week of Apple Pay: Chips, PINs, and… signatures? (Six Colors, October)

Continuity and Spotlight highlight the need to closely examine where our data goes (Macworld, October 23)

How Newsstand failed The Magazine, and what Apple should do (Macworld, October 30)

Transmit for iOS 8 Provides File Transfer Everywhere (TidBITS, October 15)

Untangling the Amazon/Hachette Dispute (TidBITS, August 11)



Character Assassination (Update: Fanboy Accusation?)

Update, Nov. 14: John Cook, the Intercept's editor in chief, will be leaving First Look to return to Gawker. No surprise there.

Update: I received a response from John Cook, Ryan Tate's boss. Added at the bottom. I appreciate he took the time to reply in the middle of turmoil there, and just days before he announced his own departure (see above).

Update: This evening, some tech industry friends explained that I was missing the basis of what I saw from Ryan Tate as an attack on my ethics and approach to life. He was being a jerk of a different color.

Apparently, he thinks I am an Apple fanboy and, three years ago, I followed Apple PR's lead in trying to "suppress" discussion of Tim Cook's sexual orientation and, today, given "approval" from Apple through the publication of Cook's essay in which he says to the world that he's gay, I felt I had permission to discussion.

That's all kinds of garbage, but a different kind. It's still nursing a grudge, unprofessional, and an unethical misuse of partial quotations of the comment from which he quoted. But in that view, he's not maligning my basic nature and accusing me of shoving people into the closet and homophobic. It's also punching down: I'm a freelancer working my ass off; he has a highly compensated job at one of the biggest news startups in America, The Intercept. His position gives him visibility, and I certainly can't believe that other people who aren't into the tech industry read his messages to me as about fanboyism.

I write critically about Apple. I have a long, well-documented history of public critique alongside positive reviews, most recently a piece in the Economist in which I expressed doubt about whether Apple train its customers to use Apple Pay in large enough numbers. My editor subtitled it, "Apple Pay may not be as successful as Starbucks in changing America's payment habits." I don't defend the company; I'm a reporter, not a lapdog. In fact, I've only written a handful of business articles about Apple in the last two years, as I focused on The Magazine, my own publication.

To those of you following David Carr's link, in which he inexplicably tells me how I should behave and that I've lost my marbles, welcome! I have other things of interest to read here.

Below is my original post and the letter I sent to Ryan's editor.

After spending weeks writing about, talking about, and supporting people the victims of harassment around women working in games development and journalism, I wake up this morning to find that Tim Cook has publicly declared his sexual orientation. I sobbed. I tweeted. This is such a milestone for a spectrum of sexuality and gender around the world. And then a former Gawker employee, now at The Intercept, pulled a couple of lines out of context in a comment I made on a Boing Boing article about a Gawker story three years ago.

It was an unprovoked attack, unprofessional in misusing my words, and deeply hurtful. Ryan Tate was nursing a grudge. Who knew? I wrote the following to John Cook, the editor in chief, of The Intercept. I'm sure he won't care, but I needed to say this.

Hi, John,

I'm a freelance reporter, and Ryan Tate is engaged this morning in character assassination against me on Twitter. Given that he identifies in his Twitter bio as working for the Intercept, and I assume you have a code of conduct about his behavior as all news organizations do for social media accounts, I'm bringing it to your attention.

While I was celebrating Tim Cook's brave move in becoming fully and publicly out, literally sobbing in my appreciation of what this means for a generation of kids and all future ones (of all orientations and genders and so forth), Ryan decided to wage a personal attack against by using a quotation from a 2011 comment of mine on Boing Boing out of context.

Ryan's tweets, in case he deletes them:

@GlennF "I doubt Tim Cook cares whether anyone knows to which gender he is attracted, nor whethe...  any of us care about it."

e.g. @glennf 2011 writes "I doubt... whether any of us care about it" today "wracked by sobs"

@GlennF @KuraFire "I doubt Tim Cook cares whether anyone knows to which gender he is attracted, nor whether knowing, whether any of us care

Read the comment he's linking from. I'm talking about whether Cook chose to out himself, or whether Gawker was selling him out for pageviews, when his sexuality is private. Ryan formerly worked at Gawker, and thus he must have a file of grudges to nurse from that time.

This is deeply offensive to me, as his attitude completely misrepresented me and my life's history. He doesn't know me, and he presumes to redeem the attempt to nonconsensually reveal Tim Cook's personal life in 2011 with my honest and emotional reaction at the value it has today.

There's a valid debate about outing; I had one this morning with Owen Thomas, also formerly at Valleywag, who says Ryan is a decent human being, a view echoed by several other of Ryan's former co-workers and current friends who we know in common.

But, given my lifelong support of LGBTQ rights, I am shocked by his behavior, and personally hurt. The line after the one he continues to quote to apparently "out" me in some fashion, he omits:

"It would be lovely if Tim Cook, gay or not, recorded an It Gets Better talk for Dan Savage’s fantastic project, or, I don’t know, gave $500 million to marriage equality and civil rights efforts for the BGLTetc communities."

I'd like to know whether you support this sort of behavior on the part of your staff. He has continued to tweet after this the same sort of childish, taunting responses.

Thank you for your time. This has been deeply upsetting. If I'd said something shameful in 2011, I'd be apologizing for it now. I did not.

—Glenn Fleishman

John Cook replied:

"In answer to your question: Yes, I do support Ryan’s behavior in this matter."


The State of Journalism Is Not a Country

Last night, my friend Brianna Wu and I spoke at length — 2 hours and 20 minutes — for a special episode of her co-hosted podcast series, Isometric. The show was started for her, Maddy Myers, Georgia Dow, and Steve Lubitz to talk about game playing. However, the timing when they launched a few months ago was such that they have spent more time than they've wanted talking about the place and representation of women in videogames, as developers, journalists, essayists, and characters.

Because she's outspoken, Brianna became the target of quite a bit of harassment after her game, Revolution 60, was released. It's gotten a quite positive reception and a critical one: people take it seriously, whatever elements they praise or dislike about it. But then, because of her outspoken behavior and her unwillingness to stand down when people are threatened, she became the target of a "doxxing" attack — where one's personal details, such as address, phone number, email, social security number, even passwords — are uncovered and published, and then a direct threat of violence and death for her and her husband. They called police and decided to leave their home for the time being.

A few days later, one of the chief proponents of the worldview represented by a leaderless movement called GamerGate — named by actor Adam Baldwin on Twitter as a label for baseless and disproven allegation of biased editorial policies and reviews at games journalism sites — asked her to be on his podcast. Milo Yiannopoulos is a far right-wing contributor to the extreme site Breitbart, and a few months ago was openly ridiculing gamers. But he sensed a shift in the air, as GamerGate is deeply reactionary and misogynistic, and has a lot in common with Tea Party politics and logic.

Brianna, having left her home and being asked to be on some major news stations and programs, wasn't able to schedule with Milo as quickly as he liked. He got ridiculous and unpleasant about it. And she discovered he had "redoxxed" one of the victims of vicious attacks, Zoe Quinn, by linking to nude photos of her that had been spread. She decided to not do the show.

But he had sent questions ahead to let her prepare, and Brianna and I decided we would do a podcast in which I asked those questions, and she answered them, as well as discussed whether the questions were ethically fair or represented factual statements.

The moment Brianna announced three days ago that we were going to record the podcast, my feed erupted. She had noted I was a journalist and I was going to ask her the tough questions; we had set the terms that, even though I was her friend, I could ask her anything, and she'd answer.

The eruption seemed to be over the definition of journalism and journalist, but I couldn't follow the often angry, often illogical statements and accusations. The GamerGaters said, "You can't be unbiased in talking to her. You're a journalist. You can't do this."

And I said, "Two friends can't discuss a topic with full disclosure?" The answer seemed to be no.

This may stem from confusion about what journalism is and how journalists work. We are not unbiased; we attempt to shelve any bias we may have in favor of an honest examination, but disclosure is the key. If we have a bias related to a story, we explain it to our editors, and our editors have a duty to choose how to present it to the audience, or to take us off the story. As a freelancer, I feel this keenly: I have a strong ethical duty to all the publications for which I write, and the one that I own and edit.

But my obligation to remain "free of bias" starts and ends with the particular articles I engage in. In the rest of my life, I need to uphold my own ethical standards, but I can express any views I choose on any matter. I can even be completely unfair (though that is not in my nature).

What I can't do is bring my bias to my work nor have any personal or financial connections that are related to my work. But I can be a journalist and talk to someone I know in an independent forum (her podcast, in fact) without violating any policies for any publications I work for, nor general ethics guidelines for reporters.

What may be difficult for people outside the news industry to grok is that I am not an employee of any organization, nor have been for nearly 20 years. All my writing is on contract, even if it's recurring. If I were on staff as an employee, or even on a full-time contract for a publication, I would operate under much stricter standards, because every action I took (almost like a politician) would be a reflection of the publication for which I was working. To interview Brianna when I was a publication staffer, I would certainly have to clear it with a boss, and I might be told not to do it, because it might give the appearance of the publication lending its name and reputation to the interview.

Being outside that structure, it's not an issue, so long as we disclose clearly all our entanglements, which we did. The first hour of the podcast is us talking about journalistic and business ethics, the issues about accusing people of false reporting, believing victims, and financial entanglements. Brianna contributed to my book Kickstarter last year and this year (about $30 each time); I gave $25 to her company's Kickstarter; I paid her money to reprint the essay she wrote for The Magazine, and then other fees for other writing early this year for our then-collection at Medium.

Money changing hands doesn't destroy our ability to have any conversation at all. If we hadn't mentioned it, it would be a breach of personal ethics to be sure, if we represented ourselves as not having any connection or entanglement. We weren't planning to mislead people, but thousands of tweets accused us ahead of the podcast of that behavior. When I engaged some people and explained, they backed down, and some apologized.

What it felt like in many people's (angry or otherwise) condemnation of our potential to record a podcast is that journalism was a place that, once departed to, one may never return as a civilian — a military service for life, or a religious order. Once I am a journalist (a Journalist!), I cannot engage in any conversation with someone who is newsworthy and whom I know. This is a misunderstanding of the difference between "straight news," the quasi-objective attempt to represent factually an account of what has or is occurring, and all other kinds of journalism and news and such, which encompasses opinion, analysis, and conversation.

It put me in mind of Hamlet, the way they seemed to think of Journalism as a far-off land:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,    
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will    
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Journalism is a concept, not a place; a job, which someone may lay down; a set of mind that one participates in; an obligation to see the world as it is. We engaged in some form of journalism in that podcast, and I believe upheld all the principles which we both hold, as a reporter on my side and a businessperson on hers — and as friends and colleagues with enormous mutual respect.

This Post Is about Ethics in Journalism

Don't worry that I'm going to rehash what #gamergate is; I'm not. If you need a rundown or refresher, the most recent solid take on the history, nature, and problems with it as a movement that may have good people in it but which is entirely corrupted by its, uh, history, nature, and ersatz leaders is from the good Dr. Nerdlove. Read his analysis. (You should also watch this short video that does an academic dissection of GamerGate as a set of  "base assumptions.")

I'd like to talk about journalistic ethics. No, seriously, I would.

I've been a writer most of my life, and started to get paid for it in 1994. I began to report for major publications, like the New York Times, Fortune, Wired, and the Economist in the late 1990s, as well as write for a variety of so-called trade magazines and sites (both consumer and industry). Every single publication I've worked for has had some kind of minimal to exceedingly detailed policy about conflicts of interest and disclosure. The trade pubs are often much more specific and restrictive than mainstream publications about what is and isn't acceptable.

As a freelancer, I have to be very careful about my actions because working for multiple publications means an intersecting superset of rules that I should be following. But I'll be honest: it's really not hard, because I disclose early and often to my editors, and make intelligent decisions of my own before pitching a story or working on one where a conflict clearly exists.

As a reporter, I'm obliged to avoid conflicts of interest, but when they are present, I'm obliged to tell my editors. I have written many times about people I know, and when it's relevant to the story, it's mentioned in it. In every case, I tell my editors; in every case, my editors decide whether to disclose friendships or other connections. I've never pitched nor written a story in which I had a stake in a financial outcome of the firm in question as a result of the story.

I give money to Kickstarters, I buy products, and I support Patreon and other campaigns. Because I'm paying money out, unless the amount is large or I've dissatisfied with the project, or if I gain special access to someone or something as a result of paying, it's not typically considered a conflict because I don't have a financial stake: I, in fact, lose money through the action, rather than gain it. If I backed a Kickstarter and it never fulfilled or the product was terrible, it's absolutely required that if I were to write about it, I tell my editor, because it is very likely it would color my writing, and readers should be aware of that, should I be allowed to write about it. (As a blogger, I also disclose such things in my blog entries.)

Many GamerGaters, whether sincerely or otherwise, beat the drum of "ethics in journalism" as a rallying cry, but the most genuine portion of their concerns seem to focus on related to clear guidelines, disclosure, and the ability to provide feedback as readers on perceived bias that won't be ignored. Why the most well-intentioned individuals aren't taken seriously is that they typically aren't addressing the right part of the equation or are asking for things that already exist.

In many cases, the people they are criticizing aren't journalists at all: they are opinion writers or essayists who work in the games industry (or unrelated industries) who are expected to disclose conflicts but are engaged in either analysis from a specific philosophical standpoint or from personal experience.

Let's break this down into a few categories:

Facts and intimacy

I know it seems obvious that reporting requires facts, and anyone reading this shouldn't have trouble with this notion. But I see over the last few months that we have a narrative problem. A set of vociferous people point to first-person accounts and hearsay (people relaying what they were told by other people, sometimes through a chain of people) as truth. Truth requires verification. A story without verification is a rumor.

The infamous essay about a breakup that sparked some of the ongoing churn of rage is one individual's highly personal account from his perspective. The assertion by others, who do not have his lived experience, that everything he represented is true is not valid. One can accept that this is his perception of what he lived through; but one doesn't use as the basis of journalism the unquestioned acceptance of a personal account.

There is the additional factor of whether the personal details of an average person's life should be examined in the media. Investigating and reporting on intimate details is typically reserved for tabloids unless both the figure is well-known and an intentional celebrity (actor, politician, book author, etc.) and the matter relates specifically to criminal or sometimes hypocritical behavior.

The essay in question wasn't reported on widely initially, because it wasn't credible or noteworthy. The person writing it and the subjects of it wouldn't meet any legal test for being public figures in most jurisdictions. The allegations contained in it were non-specific and lacked details to verify. The nature of it was prurient. The amount of money at stake, if any, was tiny (regarding reviews that would increase anyone's revenue).

The credibility issue isn't that the writer was necessarily reworking a story or making things up; rather that, on its face, its veracity couldn't be determined; without actual harm or noteworthiness, there was no point to verify details.

By calling for this essay to be reported on a fact and then many later, much more poorly sourced (and often fabricated) story elements to be told, those demanding such coverage were asking publications to behave unethically and against specific widely accepted reporting practices, which I'll get into later under ethics policies.

Game developers obtaining favorable coverage

I'll exclude the specific accusations at the core of GamerGate, as they have been debunked. But the general principle is worth examining. Did a person or company use a romantic relationship, a friendship, an advertising contract, or access to events or advance review copies to get an article or review written from a certain slant, modified after publication, or removed? Did a product, event, or industry figure obtain the coverage they wanted by manipulating editorial decisionmaking and fairness? And if so, then what?

In GamerGate, one of the principal problems is that game developers are being heavily critiqued for allegedly engaging in these sorts of behavior, and typically independent game devs who are studios of one to less than a dozen people, who have little money or funding.

But game devs aren't journalists. They didn't sign up for any code of conduct with a professional organization related to publications, and they don't owe a publication any specific fealty. One can argue everyone should be held to an ethical standard in life, but that is separate from attempting to hold firms making games to what one can reasonably expect from a publication that claims to use facts and analysis as the basis of what they put out into the world.

Whether on their own or through press relations (PR) professionals, nearly all creators and companies try to get stories written at all, and preferably favorable ones, about their work. I get dozens of press requests a week from companies with staff ranging from one part-time owner to 200,000 worldwide employees.

If someone promoting their products misuses a connection or uses coercion, a publication is responsible for the outcome. (The person or company engaging in that behavior may be behaving unethically or illegally as well.)

As a reader or any interested party, you contact the publication, preferably the editor of the piece (if known) or the editor of the publication. You lay out the facts and sources of the facts. In many cases, an editor may be unaware of a writer's affiliation or relationship with a source or subject. There are regularly reports from the travel-writing world in which a writer received something free or discounted from a resort, airline, or the like, and didn't tell an editor because that was in contravention of the publication's policies. Ditto, restaurant and food reviewers who obtain free things or special treatment who don't tell their editors. When uncovered, there's often a big stink, and some of the writers involved may never write for hire again.  (There are many food and travel sites that don't have such strict policies, and that's an actual ethics problem for believing coverage.)

If the publication refuses to acknowledge what you present, and you believe the facts tell a story, then you choose how to disseminate that. This is when it's critical to have verified facts of your own that stand up, because you could wind up accused of libel, and a publication with deep pockets or an angry owner might choose to sue you. This is very unlikely, though: very few web sites, in particular, have sued individuals who claim errors or bias in stories.

Many of the stories that allege ethical problems aren't about conflicts at all, but rather about political bias. While using the term ethics, the complaints relate to the specific inclusion of modes of thought. Some in GamerGate, for instance, object to critiquing the content of a videogame in a review as opposed to just its mechanics. That isn't an ethical issue.

Suggesting a writer be fired because you disagree with a review score or an opinion (especially due to a post labeled as opinion, analysis, op-ed, or an industry insight) seems extreme unless it's part of a provable pattern. Asking for them to be fired indicates you support the site, but disagree with its editorial judgment in providing that writer with work. If that's true, then the better course of action is to provide calm critique and documentation—or, ultimately, stop reading the site.

Many documented concerns and actual incidents (some proven, some alleged) about ethics don't show up on the GamerGate radar at all, because they often involve companies that make products the movement's participants like best. Leigh Alexander did a rundown. Recently, the makers of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Warner Brothers) were called out when its social-media PR firm required YouTube reviews to only post positive reviews if they wanted to get software codes in advance of release. This wasn't disclosed to those watching the YouTube videos (though some reviewers did so after the news came out). While YouTube reviewers may not be games journalists, they aren't far from it.

(I have, in fact, been given review agreements for hardware and software on a handful of occasions that stated that I couldn't write negative things about the product if I accepted the review copy or loaner. In the trade press, most reviewers are allowed to keep software licenses, but all hardware above a nominal value—well below $50—must be returned. I refused loans or licenses when those terms were offered.)


A related ethics complaint is that after the creation of the tag #gamergate, a number of sites and publications published over a period of about two days stories that were headlined "the death of gamers," and which took varying approaches to talking about the end of a majority audience of a specific kind (young men); that gaming had expanded into a mainstream phenomenon in which many of the participants wouldn't use the term "gamer."

The meme spread immediately that many sites had colluded to produce essays simultaneously with a similar title, ignoring that a series of external events, including the tag created by a celebrity, pushed the subject into the news. The idea that games sites, fiercely competing for readers and advertising dollars, would collude to produce essays that ostensibly (but not if actually read) were intended insult many of their readers and were a coordinated attack fails the smell test.

But beyond that, the essays appeared not just on some games sites; rather, they included stories in tech site Ars Technica (which has libertarians at its helm and is owned by Condé Nast), Daily Beast (owned by the International Business Times), Buzzfeed (massively well financed independent journalism/meme outlet), Financial Post, Vice (indie media) the Guardian, and others. It would be a remarkable story if a political agenda and cabal spanned all of those publications writing about something newsworthy. The fact that most took a similar tack didn't occur to many critics as a sign that many different people (and their editors) had come to the same conclusions watching the same behavior and market changes unfold.

Related, some complain that there is a covert progressive agenda to rework the way in which videogames are reviewed to always include critiques based on feminism and the like, subtly or not so subtly pushing the review scores of games down so that those that don't toe a line of political correctness suffer in the marketplace and lead game studios to shift focus to narratives that many who align with GamerGate find politically oppressive.

Conspiracies that require many participants don't stand up to scrutiny, because everyone has separate agendas. The notion that hundreds of people across many sites are working together towards a groupthink was aided by the release of messages from a games journalist list, in which writers and editors talked in part about how to deal with some of the worst elements of gaming and their effects on their sites.

Nonetheless, for this conspiracy to be true, it requires participation across the many sites that make up the consumer-facing Metacritic score for games, and for multi-billion-dollar gaming companies to ignore the direct feedback of their customers and their field testing, and to accept that a coordinated political effort in reviews will change what the market wants.

More games may exist with broader and more subtle themes, but the games that rake in the most cash now will continue to zoom along so long as a market for them remains.

Ethics policies

A repeated cry for the last few weeks has been, "If only the sites would adopt ethics policies and stick to them!" But some sites have such policies; others should! Kotaku links from its About page to an extensive post from June 2013. Kotaku also said Patreon donations are off-limits to its writers in August 2014. Polygon has a specific ethics policy page that dates back to its launch in October 2012 (confirmed via the Wayback Machine). Joystiq has one. The Escapist (Defy Media) added a specific page recently. I can't find a policy on Gamasutra, IGN, or Giant Bomb, but the latter devoted a podcast to discussing games journalism ethics in 2012.

So there's certainly not a concerted effort to avoid the topic; some of the sites that have been most heavily criticized have had a policy in place for years.

I have seen many tweets and other posts that urge sites to adopt the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) ethics code, which is fascinating for laypeople to seize upon. There are many policies, and the SPJ isn't a guild or a licensing authority, which is how they are seemingly bandied about by gamers concerned with bias. I fear those urging this policy don't read the section entitled Minimize Harm, but only point to the Act Independently portion, such as: "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."

The SPJ doesn't investigate and enforce policy violations. This is a living document that offers a set of best practices for publications. It's not a contract nor legally binding. All readers rely on the integrity of the publication that they are reading; the ethics guidelines help serve as a guide for how to trust them and a way to hold them accountable for hypocrisy.

It's not about the ethics

Ethical problems emerge in any industry that has its own trade publications, because the publishers typically obtain most of their money from those about which they write. As a long-time tech reporter, I've fortunately not experienced coercion or been offered bribes, but I have certainly heard and seen many occasions on which companies try to cross the line, as well as journalists offer to cross it.

The duty we owe our readers is honesty, not cringing fealty. Games journalism publishers, editors, and writers should produce work free of entanglements that materially affect their coverage and published pieces, but they shouldn't be barred from having friends and relationships, or having advertisers and sponsors. Disclosure is the name of the game, rather than the impossible notion of avoiding connections with others, especially in small industries, and making a clean breast of things when wrong decisions are made or writers or editors are misled.

(Comments are enabled unless they get out of hand. I moderate for civility and logic.)

Private I: a New Column at Macworld

My inaugural outing as a columnist at Macworld appeared today under the name Private I. I'll be writing weekly about security and privacy as they relate to Mac and iOS users. How does new security exploit X affect you as a Mac OS X user? How does mobile hack Y reveal your location to advertisers? Oh, there's enough to fill a column every day, and I'll be hard pressed to pick a single notion a week.