David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, took critical note this week of arrogant behavior at Apple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the myopia that pervades his organization about its own dealings with Apple, he missed a crucial part of the story.
Carr, whom I like and respect enormously, gets so much right. He connects some dots that his and other news organizations, particularly Wired, had been creating in their journalism — and not just about the outrageous invasion of a journalist’s home, plus the confiscation of his computing gear, to further an almost certainly Apple-inspired investigation. This, you’ll recall, occurred after an employee lost an iPhone prototype, which was then purchased by Gawker in the process of doing a much talked-about article.
(Whether Gawker Media was right or wrong to pay for the device isn’t the topic here; I don’t have to like the way they did their journalism to vehemently object to the abuses by the authorities, who should have gotten a subpoena instead of a search warrant; their actions were an attack on journalism, a flagrant one.)
The dots Carr connects amount to what anyone who’s paid attention to Apple has known for years: Apple makes great gadgets and software, but it is secretive, manipulative and capricious in the way it deals with everyone outside its high walls — and it plainly aims to exert absolute control over what it aims to make the world’s next major computing and communications platform.
Communications means media. Carr notices, at one point, that Apple is becoming a media company as he cites Apple’s dictatorial handling of the ecosystem that uses the iPhone operating system, which controls the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
Carr can’t find a pattern in the way Apple decides which content-based apps get approved and rejected. I can: It’s a pattern of a single company making all the decisions. Carr does say it makes him “queasy” and notes that it’s part of a closed-ecosystem method Apple has chosen for its newer devices. He writes:
Apple’s behavior and choices in the Gizmodo affair threaten to interrupt the séance between the company and an adoring press, who have looked past all the frantic secrecy and reverently stared in wonder at what was eventually revealed behind the curtain.
The media’s crush on Apple has always been an unrequited love affair. The company has a few familiars in the press whom it favors, but Apple has “no comment” programmed on a macro key. The company has unsuccessfully sued bloggers who, it believed, had punctured its veil of secrecy, and important tech news organizations like Wired have been shut out as a result of coverage deemed ill-mannered.
When I read that, I thought, Aha, now he’s going to address his own organization’s flagrant questions of integrity involving Apple — and look at an issue I and a number of others have raised about Apple and journalism. Namely: Why are news organizations, creating iPad apps at a rapid rate, throwing themselves into the arms of a company that unilaterally reserves the right to reject or remove the journalism from its platform if it doesn’t like what it sees.
Surely this would be worth raising an eyebrow? You won’t find a word in Carr’s column even wondering if journalism organizations are violating basic principles this way.
The questions are (or should be) more pointed in the specific case of the Times and its dealings with Apple. Their relationship looks so close on the surface that it gives the appearance of a cross-promotional campaign for each others’ products. Might it have been useful for Carr to ask his own bosses to address any of this? When I asked, they stonewalled until issuing a “no comment” to my specific questions. This was curious: Last summer, when Apple was similarly promoting the Times in its pre-release campaign for an iPhone model, a Times spokesperson specifically denied to the Nieman Journalism Lab that there was any business relationship, saying Apple had asked for permission, happily granted, to feature the news organization in its promotion. In that context, a “no comment” is at least an interesting shift in position. Maybe Carr could have asked if something had changed?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course, just like the other ones I’m asking about how far Carr’s column took these issues. I don’t really expect him to push his bosses as hard as I’m suggesting he might. He’s an employee, and employees of news organizations — institutions whose arrogance matches that of Wall Street banks — know just how far they can go, which isn’t very far, in asking of themselves that which they demand of others.