Capitalist capture, objectivity, and blogs

I would suggest that ‘objective journalism’ has always been something of an overstatement, an aspiration rather than a set of workable practices. Like ‘objective science’, there are – at minimum – choices of what to study and how to study them. Objective journalism has become something of a farce in the 21st century death-by-a-thousand-cuts age of online media, a game whereby non-objective journalists make decisions about what angles to take on a story, who to quote, who to quote anonymously, who’s dirty laundry to keep undisturbed, whose issues to pay attention to. Still, this is a far, far cry from the baseless claims that science is just made up, that statistics can say anything, that facts are just endlessly malleable.

Which leads me to Pepsi, Scienceblogs, John Gruber, and Apple’s iPhone 4.

Scienceblogs is a community of science blogs (duh), hosted by what was once Seed Magazine (and what is now Seed Media Group). In early July, 2010, Scienceblogs began hosting a new blog, called Food Frontiers:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging

(this quote comes from an article by Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review, the original announcement having been taken down at Scienceblogs and replaced with an apologetic note). But yes, the Scienceblog in question was not just sponsored by PepsiCo, but actually would be a science-based nutrition blog written by PepsiCo. You can catch up at Bora Zivkovic’s (who as a result of this actually left Scienceblogs) massive linkdump.

As a result of this move, in fact, Scienceblogs seems to be falling apart. I would like to take this opportunity to look at the practice of corporate blogging, corporate-sponsored blogging, and well, corporate blog-whoring, all with a jaundiced eye. Seed Media Group’s CEO Adam Bly wrote a confidential letter to contributors (helpfully posted by the Guardian):

We have also hosted blogs on SB from research-based companies like Shell, Dow, Schering-Plough, GE, Invitrogen, L’Oreal (in Germany), and now PepsiCo. I want to address the logic and strategy behind this.

ScienceBlogs has consistently maintained editorial excellence. We syndicate content to the New York Times, National Geographic, and are indexed by Google News. So respected is our platform that the US State Department recently published a post on 3.14. We should all be very proud of what we have achieved in four short years. We have ensured editorial excellence not by editing your posts or telling you what to write – a first principle unique to SB that we will never change – but by learning over four years how to create an environment that encourages your best. We believe that one vital aspect of this SB environment is its intentional diversity. You are all expert at different things, care passionately about other things, and come from different backgrounds and countries. We think this is a good thing and we think it help makes SB tick for our readers. We also think that you cannot have a real conversation about science and its place and role in society unless you pursue and protect this diversity. It’s why we believe that all serious voices in science should have a seat at the table (and we’ve been consistent about what’s serious and what’s fringe or worse).

We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry. Because industry is increasingly the interface between science and society. It is our hope that the Xeroxes and Bell Labs of the future will have a real presence on SB – that they will learn from our readers and we will learn from them. That they will break stories on SB and engage our readers in the issues that concern them. The bloggers who blog on ‘corporate blogs’ on SB are necessarily credentialed scientists (we make sure of that), in some cases highly credentialed scientists who have published extensively in peer-reviewed journals. The fact that they work at a profit-making company does not automatically disqualify their science in our mind. And frankly, nor does it disqualify them in the eyes of the Nobel Prize Committee either.

Let me address PepsiCo in particular. Of course we recognize – and of course so does PepsiCo! – that they’ve made a lot of money selling soft drinks and chips. But they also recognize that their future will be troublesome and time-limited without addressing the real and connected issues of obesity and under-nutrition in the world. PepsiCo employs thousands of scientists working on these problems and they are led by some very serious scientists – eg. their chief scientist worked at the Mayo Clinic and serves on the Board of Governors of the New York Academy of Sciences. (PepsiCo is the same place that makes Tropicana and Quaker Oatmeal.)

PepsiCo comes off like Nick Naylor in Thank you for Smoking: Though these lobbyists would like to see Cancer Boy die to prove their point, it is in Tobacco’s best interests that he LIVES, to continue using our product!

Seriously, read that whole memo. Basically the CEO says that 1) there are scientists at for-profit companies; 2) lots of places including the New Yorker and Atlantic give prime access to companies who pay for it; and 3) we need the money.

Now, there is a relatively interesting discussion here to be made about the ways that capitalism intersects with opinion, and the long, historic dependency of news media on paid advertisement. But I would also strongly suggest that for-profit actors are now (and perhaps have always) mobilized the form of more ‘objective’ outlets in order make more credible claims. For me, at its most base level, it comes down to this:

People are more inclined to believe you if they see you as an impartial observer than if they see you as a partial advocate. If you are on the corporate (or political) payroll, you can not be trusted and your opinion is suspect. Impartiality doesn’t even quite get at this, though. Maybe transparent. But not quite, since transparent can be easily dismissed as obviously unable to form a helpful opinion. Fair-minded. That’s more what I am talking about.

This is the fact on which 99% of the complaints and justifications are based. PepsiCo can not be trusted to speak on science issues because they can not be believed to be fair-minded.

And here is where John Gruber comes in. Recently, Apple has had some problems with its recently released iPhone 4. Apparently, its antenna is constructed in such a way that holding it in a particular way attenuates the signal. Consumer Reports called this a design defect in one place and an antenna problem in another. The NYT article calls it a ‘design flaw’.

Apple held a press conference to push back against these criticisms, where Steve Jobs personally spoke and answered questions about the phone’s antenna, its performance against other phones, and Apple’s remedy for the problem (giving away phone cases to physically prevent users from bridging the antenna gap and triggering the loss of signal).

Gruber runs a (wonderful) blog called Daring Fireball, where he both curates and commentates on the internet, with a strong preference for Apple products and a clearly insider-y take on all things Apple. He is not on the payroll, which he jokingly comments about. But still, he seems to have been one of a members of the press who got to tour Apple’s Antenna Testing Lab after the press conference (I don’t know him, and I don’t know this for certain. But that first ‘jokingly’ link notes at the end that some members of the press got to go, the second notes that ‘this is the lab a few of us got to tour in person’).

And here’s the thing. During the press conference, Jobs was at pains to show that other phones had a comparable flaw, and that this was a ‘weak spot’. Early on, Gruber uses quotes around “weak spot”, noting that it is Apple’s parlance, or that it is “Jobs’s term for the infamous lower-left gap in the antenna frame”.

But then a funny thing happens. After a slew of posts about other manufacturers’ phones (and running snide commentary about their lack of attention, as well as how his checks from Apple should keep rolling in), Gruber comes to some conclusions, an Antennagate Bottom Line. Here, he begins:

What is not in dispute: the iPhone 4 antenna has a weak spot in the lower-left corner of the frame, marked by the black line in the frame. When covered by your hand, this antenna suffers from attenuation. This is much like other smartphones.

After running through the evidence and opinion, including Apple’s $100 million dollar remediation effort for something Gruber himself considers a fairly minor trade-off for a great phone, he concludes:

Anyway, bottom line on the iPhone 4 antenna: it has a weak spot but there’s no evidence that it’s a significant, let alone catastrophic, problem in practice. It’s telling that the criticism surrounding this issue has shifted, quickly, from speculation about a technical defect in the iPhone 4 hardware to criticism over the tone of Apple’s response to it.

What certainly could be described as a design flaw, a design defect, or an antenna problem is magically transformed into a weak spot. A weak spot implies a small flaw in an otherwise ‘working’ device; a design flaw implies a ‘broken’ device. And the truth of it is, I do not know which of these is the case here (or both, depending on you, your network, your other options, your disposition towards Apple, etc). But I do know that Apple is deeply, deeply invested in it being the former. “Weak spot”, turns into weak spot, turns into insignificant problem.

It is equally apparent to me that by co-opting Gruber and other journalists, bloggers, and opinion makers, whose credibility precisely rests on their reputation as unbiased observers, Apple is doing just what PepsiCo was doing when it signed on to create a Scienceblog. And of course Gruber knows this. The whole sarcastic schtick about his payola checks suggests that he knows that if he really was on the Apple payroll, his opinions would simply. matter. less.

I’m not really sure what to do with this problem. But in an era of increasing information-by-the-many, it’s one that is likely to get much worse before it gets much better.

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