Tech Central Station never had a soul to sell

By Bradley J. Fikes

You're shopping for a new car, and after weeks of looking are still undecided. Then a friend suggests you buy a certain make from a certain dealer he thinks highly of, and you buy it.

Then you find out your acquaintance is in fact a cousin of the dealer, and he gets a cut of the take.

You'd feel used. Under pretense of acting in your best interest, this "friend" has used you to line his pockets.

That's how I feel about Tech Central Station, a political/technological Web site that presents itself as a quasi-libertarian defender of free markets. I discovered it through megablogger InstaPundit, known to mortals as Glenn Reynolds, a contributor to the site.

Libertarians defending free markets and explaining technology I like. What I don't like is that TCS is nothing of the kind.

Far from being an independent voice of the libertarian creed like Reason, Tech Central Station is a marketing tool of DCI, a well-heeled lobbyist group based in Washington, D.C. It's the brainchild of James K. Glassman, A-list journo and the great business prophet who released "Dow 36,000" months before the market began to crash.

DCI concealed its role in Tech Central Station until it was outed by Nicholas Confessore in the December Washington Monthly. As the bloggers say, read the whole thing here. Just before the article broke, DCI added a disclaimer to Tech Central Station indicating its role in the Web site.

Journalism, lobbying and ethics

Reynolds, to my intense disappointment, wrote that he failed to see why DCI's ownership was such a big issue. He wasn't pressured to write anything that conformed to what DCI's clients wanted, after all. So what's wrong?

On various blog sites, the TCS writers – with the honorable exception of Matthew Yglesias – demanded exact proof that a sponsor such as Microsoft was favored, then when confronted with the evidence, ignored it, asked for more proof, or brushed off the idea as laughable. After all, they had no knowledge of DCI's role, so how could they be involved in anything unethical? Some pointed to Tech Central Station's practice of openly giving thanks to the site's sponsors, including Microsoft. See, full disclosure!

Tech Central Station home page Another TCS writer, Ayn Rand acolyte Megan McArdle, a.k.a "Jane Galt," tried in a blog posting to minimize the conflict of interest issue by noting that in journalism there isn't always a bright line between advertising and editorial. Articles are sometimes written to please advertisers. When did you last see a travel magazine with a negative article on travel?

McArdle's right, of course. But she leaves out the most important point: Journalists and journalism trade associations consider the practice deeply unethical. Journalists consider slanting a news story to please an advertiser a violation of their responsibility to be honest and forthright to those who read or watch their reports.

Sorry, McArdle: Defending the journalism ethics of Tech Central Station by invoking another unethical practice is not much of a defense.

For lobbyists, the ethical situation is exactly the opposite. Lobbyists have no ethical obligation to be fair or neutral; they're ethically required to put their clients in the best light in return for their fee. The lobbyists' primary loyalty is not to those who receive their message, it's to the clients who want to get the message out.

Clients and sponsors

Tech Central Station's listing of sponsors also falls far short of full disclosure. The implication is of an independent Web site giving thanks to companies who contribute out of support for its free-market philosophy. Even in an advocacy publication such as National Review or Mother Jones, it would be considered journalistically unethical to link sponsor money to publishing articles favoring the sponsors. That's what ads are for.

But these companies on TCS are in reality not sponsors of an informational Web site, they are clients of a lobbyist. They expect specific work to be done for their money – a linkage that is never acceptable in journalism. So the articles on Tech Central Station that favor DCI clients are more akin to advertisements than articles, but they're not labeled as such.

These ethical conflicts are why it's wrong to combine journalism and independent writing with PR lobbying, especially when the lobbyist's financial interest is hidden. Readers are misled into thinking they are reading information selected for its value to them, when they are actually reading advertisements selected to benefit the client.

And that's the obvious reason – indeed the only reason – that a lobbying group such as DCI would ever start a supposedly independent Web site, print articles that conformed to the agendas of its clients, and then try to cover its role.

The best way to handle a conflict of interest is to bring it into the open, where readers can make their own judgments.

A few years ago I was hired to write about biotechnology for DoubleTwist, a now-defunct Oakland-based biotech company. Everything was completely in the open, starting with our being hosted on DoubleTwist's Web site.

My editor, a longtime professional biotech journalist, composed a code of ethics, stating that we would cover biotech objectively and not favor DoubleTwist. And we went to work, with the understanding that we would go out of our way not to write anything that smacked of self-promotion. At one point, I even wrote an article rather favorably describing the work of a DoubleTwist competitor. The competitor even issued a press release hailing the article. While some of the DoubleTwist executives may have inwardly cringed, I never felt any pressure to write anything against my news judgment.

Both DoubleTwist and DCI had a similar conflict of interest as publishers of Web sites. DoubleTwist laid its conflict on the table so anyone could judge whether it was being fair. DCI chose to hide its conflict, hoping no one would notice.

Lobbyist in Libertarian drag

Now it's true that many of Tech Central Station's articles do correspond in general to Libertarian/free market philosophy. What's most telling are the exceptions, which seemingly always favor clients.

For example, most Libertarians are skeptical of antitrust laws, so there's nothing unusual for Tech Central Station to defend Microsoft in its antitrust cases. However, nearly all the site's articles on open source software such as Linux are negative. (The one positive article was paired with a negative article, allegedly for balance, while negative articles were not so balanced.)

There is nothing in Libertarian philosophy that says there is anything wrong with open source software. As with Linux, it's mostly a volunteer effort and is in no way a government mandate. And many technology magazines and Web sites have reported on Linux' increasingly popularity as an alternative to Microsoft.

In fact, Microsoft is increasingly desperate to stop Linux, by threats, cash inducements and the usual combination of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). The campaign is so far proving ineffective.

Michael Robertson, founder of Linux maker Lindows, reports that Microsoft is even sending threatening letters to small Lindows vendors in the Netherlands. Read it here.

(This story is being written on a Linux machine – Lindows to be exact – that used to be a Windows 2000 machine until it was crashed by Apple's iTunes software. Thanks a lot, Steve Jobs.). No wonder that Microsoft sought a more practiced hand in the art of media manipulation. One would think Libertarians would rejoice that Microsoft is being relieved of its burden of monopoly, not by government intervention, but by good ol' free-market competition. Tech Central Station's opposition is thus an anomaly. That is, it's anomalous if one thinks of Tech Central Station as it used to advertise itself, an independent operation devoted to exploring the nexus between technology and free markets.

But if one considers Tech Central Station as what it really is – an arm of a lobbying firm that counts Microsoft on its client roster – everything clicks into place. The Web site is merely another avenue for DCI to insinuate its clients' points of view into the public, without tipping its hand.

How Glassman must be laughing at the pretzel-like contortions of people like Reynolds and McArdle, risking their own reputations as ethical writers as they desperately try to avoid the obvious conclusion that they've been had!

Be open

Does this mean lobbyists are inherently unethical? Of course not.

I've know ethical lobbyists and PR people, and unethical reporters. What matters is not what your role is, but how fairly, directly and honestly you treat people. A lobbyist who is up front and truthful can be very effective.

What's unethical is when a lobbyist (or journalist or anyone else) lies or misrepresents him or herself for personal gain. This corrodes trust. It also betrays a lack of confidence on the part of the deceiver that open dialogue would be effective.

We need to keep polishing that bright line between reporting and advocacy, and openness is one of the best ways to achieve that goal. Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant. Microsoft is the most notorious example of a DCI client addicted to deceit. In 1999, during Microsoft's antitrust trial, its employees submitted a doctored videotape purporting to show that removing Internet Explorer from Windows 98 harmed its performance. See details here.

More recently, Microsoft tried to counter Apple's "Switch" campaign depicting people who had given up Windows computers for the Mac. Microsoft's Web page showcased a young woman who oozed praise for Microsoft software in words that sounded suspiciously like PR copy.

It was.

The woman was in fact a PR person hired by Microsoft, and the photo with the testimonial was a stock photo. Microsoft withdrew the testimonial after the truth was uncovered.

With that background of playing fast and loose with the truth, Microsoft has lost credibility with many journalists. So when top Microsoft executives deride Linux, reporters recognize it as the standard self-serving rhetoric from Redmond.

This is worrisome for Microsoft, because despite its best efforts Linux is gaining popularity, with businesses but also to some degree with consumers.

How Astroturf works

Take the unsubtle rhetoric of a client like Microsoft, filter and pour it out on a Web site through writers not identified with Microsoft. Dress it up with interesting articles unrelated to any client. Now you have what is corporate propaganda that's perceived as as independent opinion. People will lower their defenses and take it more seriously than the self-serving rhetoric of a Microsoft. That's the theory of Astroturf journalism – creating a false impression of grassroots popularity for an idea.

The writers for an Astroturf outlet may not have a clue as to what's going on. They may think their work is selected for quality, when it is in fact selected to help DCI fulfil its contract with a client. In fact, unknowing writers are preferable, as they can honestly say they weren't told to write anything. They also help defend DCI's credibility, even at the expense of their own. Or perhaps the writing serves no immediate client need. It may be window dressing, to make readers more likely to accept accompanying propaganda tracts at face value, a sort of bait-and-switch tactic.

Here's how the DCI/Tech Central Station operation dovetails, according to Confessore:

The articles on Tech Central Station address a broad range of issues, some of concern to its sponsors, many not. And most of the site's authors are no doubt merely voicing opinions they have already reached. But time and time again, TCS's coverage of particular issues has had the appearance of a well-aimed P.R. blitz. After ExxonMobil became a sponsor, for instance, the site published a flurry of content attacking both the Kyoto accord to limit greenhouse gasses and the science of global warming – which happen to be among ExxonMobil's chief policy concerns in Washington.

TCS's articles have also complemented work being done by DCI. During 2000, Microsoft contracted with DCI to perform various services, among them generating "grassroots" letters opposing a breakup of Microsoft and launching Americans for Technology Leadership, an anti-breakup group funded in part by Microsoft and run out of DCI's office. Meanwhile, down the hall, Tech Central Station went on the offensive, inaugurating an "anti-trust" section that over the coming months would publish little except defenses of Microsoft and attacks on the software maker's corporate and governmental antagonists, with occasional detours into the subject of lawsuit reform. (Microsoft smartly plugged some of the articles on its own Web site.)

Who can you trust?

As a writer who values his reputation, I wouldn't need voluminous evidence of Astroturf coverage to conclude that the whole DCI/Tech Central Station arrangement smelled. The concealment would be enough for me for me that something was wrong. The whole point, remember, is to put one over on the public by hiding the lobbyist's hand.

As a reader, I'm now forced to look at everything on Tech Central Station in a different light. And the same is true for the writers such as Glenn Reynolds who see nothing wrong with working for a lobbyist masquerading as an independent Web site. If they're not savvy enough to see when they're being used, why should I rely on them?

Credibility is all you've really got in life. People like Reynolds who lightly dismiss the ethical issues raised by DCI's conduct are also taking their own reputation lightly. And that's a tragedy. The DCI lobbyists get richer while useful idiots such as Reynolds who pretend nothings wrong suffer the consequences.

At least one Tech Central Station writer feels the same way I do. Matthew Yglesias wrote that he objected to DCI's hidden hand in Tech Central Station as harmful to the free-market views it purports to espouse:

"In the wake of the TCS flap, one of the things you heard most frequently from the right was that the finances really didn't matter, because an argument stands or falls on its own merits. That's a nice description of the Platonic Ideal of opinion journalism, but in the real world, things are a lot more complicated ..." Yglesias wrote on his blog site.

"Voters want to know whether or not a given proposal is a genuine free market proposal that the corporations happen to like, or if it's a corporate proposal being dressed up in free market rhetoric. One of the ways you get a sense of this is by looking at the opinions of professional political observers at the conservative and libertarian think tanks and magazines. Thus, if you can gain control of a libertarian opinion outlet and ensure that, at crucial points, it pretends that a pro-corporate, anti-market stance (prohibition of drug reimportation, for example) is, in fact, a pro-market stance that just happens to be pro-corporate, you'll have gained a great deal."

Precisely so.

Libertarians are the ones with the most to lose from this deception. By defending the indefensible, Libertarians will appear to be nothing more than shills for big-bucks lobbyists and the corporations that procure their services. It's a vulgar characterization to say Libertarians are in the pocket of big business, but sites such as Tech Central Station perpetuate the myth.

And so I hope Libertarians and free marketeers everywhere – and those of other political persuasions who abhor puppet-mastery – will get themselves to Reason or the Cato Institute for above-board, no-hidden-agendas Libertarian views.

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