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My primary gig these days is at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where I work to bring entrepreneurship and digital media literacy into the curriculum. I’m also a blogger, author, speaker, media investor and co-founder of several online businesses. 

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Sad news: The Wall Street Journal’s John Wilke has died at age 54.

John Wilke worked at the Journal for two decades, and did some of the best reporting on how business and politics merge in unhealthy ways.

My own connection to him was tangential but memorable. In the 1990s, when I was writing about technology and business, and raising a continual stink about the predatory ways of Microsoft, the Journal seemed disgracefully in the tank for the software company and its lawbreaking leaders. (I don’t think they actually were in the tank; my guess is that they fell victim to the syndrome that often leads reporters to unwittingly go too easy on the people they cover, for fear of losing access.)

Then came the federal antitrust lawsuit, and Wilke — the Washington reporter who covered antitrust — eagerly jumped into the fray.

The more he read the documents available in the case (which were also available to the Journal’s Microsoft reporters in Seattle), he told me one day on the phone, the more excited he got at the amazing story he was covering. He couldn’t believe the stuff the company had been doing, and he wrote by far the Journal’s best coverage of the company and its behavior.

This wasn’t the only excellent work he did by any means. His tenacity and talent were well-known, and will be much missed.


It’s hardly surprising when someone fires back at a harsh critic of his or her employer’s competence and/or ethics. But when that someone is superstar New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and the return fire takes the form, in part, of “Fuck you,” it raises a few eyebrows — and makes you wonder about a broader hubris.

The exchange in question came yesterday at the Freedom to Connect conference, a gathering in suburban Washington where people discuss issues related to data networking and the information revolution. Friedman’s keynote talk was all about his latest book and touched on the conference theme only briefly during the Q&A.

He’d already dropped the F-bomb at the start of his talk (in a WTF mode) when he noticed the conference back-channel discussion scrolling by on a stage-monitor screen. Later, during the Q&A, he was asked to comment on a question posted there that challenged the Times’ credibility in a fairly general and nasty way.

He began, appropriately, by saying that yes, the paper makes mistakes. But then he offered what sounded like a more heart-felt response, the above-noted “fuck you,” winning applause from some but certainly not all or (by my estimate) even a majority of the audience.

Friedman had my sympathy in some ways. It’s hard to sit there and take abuse, even though pundits dish it out for a living to people who have thicker skins than all but a tiny minority of journalists. (I’ve fired back at some folks on my various blogs over the years, even ones written as part of newspaper gigs, but always remembered that there were lines I wouldn’t cross in that professional venue or, short of the most extreme provocation, in any situation.)

Yes, the question he’d been asked was shallow and accusatory — and yet absolutely reasonable in several key respects. The Times (I own stock in the company) is a great institution that does absolutely vital work. But it has had to answer, and not always persuasively, for its own grotesque lapses — not least, in recent history, the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals — and Friedman himself has hardly been a pundit whose pronouncements are infallible or, on some issues, even mostly correct in retrospect. His self-involvement isn’t off the charts, meanwhile, but it’s plainly strong.

So while understandable, his arrogant retort reflected more than merely the self-assurance of a pundit who’s won multiple Pulitzer prizes, has penned best-selling books and gives speeches around the globe promoting his viewpoints. It was entirely illustrative of his newspaper’s famous confidence, which more often than it should bleeds into hubris and outright arrogance.

Saying “Fuck you” didn’t make him more authoritative. It diminished him.

UPDATE: Friedman sent the following (very slightly edited) to a Freedom-to-Connect mail list, and gave me permission to repost it here:

To those who understood where I was coming from, thanks. To those who didn’t, thanks also. We should all learn from our critics.

I believe passionately in the New York Times, a place I have worked at my whole adult life. Lord knows, it has made its mistakes. Which newspaper or blogger hasn’t? But I believe that when it is at its best it plays a vitally important role in our democracy, and flippant, denigrating remarks about it, at a time when it is in economic peril and our country desperately needs serious journalism to sort through this crisis, struck me as deeply unserious.

That said, when I’m trying to make a point, especially a heartfelt one, and my choice of words ends up getting in the way of that point — even if for just one person — then I chose the wrong words. So thanks to all for a great discussion and a learning afternoon.

The Washington Post does an excellent story on torture during the Bush administration but, in the cowardly way that the paper has done all along, refuses to use the word “torture” forthrightly. It is not “harsh interrogation methods,” as the Post insists on saying, along with so many all other media organizations that are equally cowardly.

It is torture. Period.

In two weeks it’ll be 10 years since Andy Grove’s on-stage conversation at an annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which he warned the industry of its impending financial meltdown. He wasn’t the first to warn, and hardly the last. But the degree to which he was ignored remains instructive, and sad.

Anyway, here’s what he said (excerpted from the transcript):

You’re where Intel was three years before the roof fell in on us. You’re heading toward a strategic inflection point, and three years from now, maybe, it’s going to be obvious. Things like newsprint giving you a little bit of a lift, a little bit of a hand, are going to run their course. You’re going to be in a profit squeeze, and it’s going to be a very, very difficult time, more difficult to adjust later. All of this sets up what to do. You have to ask what your microprocessor is in the Intel analogy. What is it that you can do for me as a reader that the Web pages or online coverage can’t do? I indicated what my preference is. I’m looking for depth. I’m looking for interpretation, and please don’t give me length instead of depth. A lot of magazine coverage does that. They think they’re deep when they give you a six-page article, and they’re just long.

From a publisher’s standpoint, there’s going to be huge push and pull. This requires more money at a time when margins are going to be under attack. Interpretation requires time and requires research and requires feet on the street, people on the phones calling, studying, going to the library, probably at a time when you’re financially being pulled in the other direction. And my history of the technology industry is you cannot save yourself out of a strategic inflection point. You can save yourself deeper into the morass that you’re heading to, but you can only invest your way out of it, and I really wonder how many people who are in charge of the business processes of journalism understand that.

Two notes:

1. ASNE asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt to keynote this year’s meeting.

2. I don’t know if he accepted, but the meeting was canceled.

Google TB.png

Google is pointing from its home page today to a page about World Tuberculosis Day and that, in turn, points to the Stop TB Partnership, a nonprofit organization. A worthy cause, and good for Google for pointing to it.

Consider the power of this endorsement. I suspect that with this single link, Google is channeling more money to the organizations that want to end TB than the sum of all their previous campaigns. This is power of a breathtaking kind.