Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is Jason Chen a journalist? Not according to Nick Denton

The home of Jason Chen, editor-in-chief of Gizmodo, was raided by police from the San Mateo (California) Sheriff's Office last Sunday night to find evidence related to the theft by an as-yet unnamed individual, and purchase and subsequent publication of information by Gizmodo about a prototype Apple iPhone. A search warrant was issued by a San Mateo County judge at the request of a County prosecutor. According to CNET, police seized "three Apple laptops, a Samsung digital camera, a Seagate 500 GB external hard drive, USB flash drives, a HP MediaSmart server, a 32GB Apple iPad, an 16GB iPhone, and an IBM ThinkPad."

Once the raid was publicized, many parties (including Gawker Media, publisher of the Gizmodo website) claimed that the search warrant was improper and the raid illegal under both California and U.S. journalist shield laws. Gawker Media has demanded that police return Chen's (and presumably its own) property.

The question is whether or not Jason Chen is actually a journalist and is entitled to protection under shield laws. Nick Denton, the owner and publisher of the Gawker Media properties, was quoted less than a year ago in the Washington Post, saying the following: "We don't seek to do good," says Denton, wearing a purplish shirt, jeans and a beard that resembles a three-day growth. "We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention."

In that quote, Denton is essentially saying "We're not journalists, so don't hold us to journalistic standards." However, when one of his editors got caught purchasing stolen property and committing extortion (refusing to return the phone to Apple unless the company sent him a written document that Gizmodo could publish to prove the authenticity of the phone), Denton's managers and attorneys claimed journalistic protection. You can't have it both ways.

It's up to state and Federal courts to decide whether or not Chen and Gizmodo are entitled to protection under journalist shield laws, and whether or not any of the evidence collected by police will be admissible in court. We're also going to hear a lot about persecution of journalists and the ever-popular "slippery slope" over the next few weeks. However, Chen and Gizmodo brought this on themselves. As he and his writers have repeatedly stated on the Gizmodo blog, they did it to get back at Apple for that company's policies on protecting information about unreleased products. They weren't revealing any illegal activity or acting in the public interest; their motivations for their actions were money and revenge. That's not journalism.

Update: According to posts on both CNET and the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital, Jason Chen and Gizmodo can't use the California or U.S. journalistic shield laws to protect themselves if the police are investigating them for committing a crime (or crimes). That would make any discussion of whether or not Chen is a journalist irrelevant. As I pointed out above, there's no argument that Gizmodo purchased the iPhone prototype and should have known that the person selling it didn't own and had no right to sell it, meaning that Gizmodo purchased stolen property. Gizmodo itself reported that it demanded a written request from Apple before it would agree to return the prototype; it subsequently published Apple's written request as proof of the phone's authenticity. That's extortion.
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Anonymous said...

If you can't have it both ways, then he's a journalist; whatever the owner said, flippantly (which is apparently his m.o.) to characterize their company, isn't enough to undo the fact that they do original reporting.

Unknown said...

Not exactly. Denton is Chen's boss, and Gizmodo has a long history of doing things (like vandalizing CES) that in no way qualify as journalism. To the best of my knowledge, no one at Gizmodo was penalized internally in any way for their actions in the past. All they're concerned about (and rewarded for) are page views.

Denton encourages the Gizmodo not to act like journalists, so they don't. You can't choose to be categorized as a journalist when it suits your needs, and not otherwise. As I said, the courts will decide, but to me it's clear--they don't act like journalists, their management says they're not journalists, and they shouldn't be entitled to the protection of journalists.