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Sophomoric Pranks Do Not a Journalist Make

Last week gadget blog Gizmodo admitted to pulling a prank at CES 2008 in which they used a device to turn off TVs on the exhibit floor and during company presentations. In their post about the prank Gizmodo apologized (“It was too much fun, but watching this video, we realize it probably made some people’s jobs harder, and I don’t agree with that […] We’re sorry,” they wrote), but across the blogosphere the blog was still widely panned for the juvenile prank. And rightly so. Today, Gizmodo editor Brian Lam posted a lengthy response to his critics.

In it, Lam makes some good points about journalism. Unfortunately for him, none of them are a good defense for his blog’s CES prank. Lam may know a thing or two about what makes a journalist, but he apparently does not know how they should behave.

As Robert Scoble points out, a journalist is supposed to “report the news, not make it.” (Unless, perhaps, you’re aiming for some sort of gonzo-style connection with your story — but Fear and Loathing at CES this was not.) But making news isn’t really what Gizmodo was doing, at least not according to Brian Lam. Their prank was not intended to give them something to report, rather says Lam, it was intended to demonstrate their independent spirit.

“When did journalists become the protectors of corporations? When did this industry, defined by pranksters like Woz, get so serious and in-the-pocket of big business?” Lam asked in his blogged response to critics of last week’s prank. Though I think he is making a rather extraordinary leap (how is criticism of a sophomoric prank evidence of pandering to corporations?), Lam does make some very good points about integrity and journalism.

“You don’t get more access by selling out for press credentials first chance you get, kowtowing to corporations and tradeshows and playing nice,” he writes, “you earn your respect by fact finding, reporting, having untouchable integrity, provocative coverage and gaining readers through your reputation for those things.”

All true! But that’s where Lam loses it: when he uses his treatise on integrity in journalism as a defense for a prank that showed an utter lack of integrity (or if not that, at the very least it showed a complete absence of class). “Our prank pays homage to the notion of independence and independent reporting. And no matter how much access the companies give us, we won’t ever stop being irreverent. That’s what this prank was about and what the press should understand,” claims Lam.

Sorry, Brian, that’s not what the prank demonstrated. What it showed was that your employees don’t know how to behave in a public, civilized setting. You can still ask the tough questions, demand the the truth, not publish corporate talking points, and check facts before publishing without acting like delinquents. Irreverence shouldn’t mean classlessness, and independence shouldn’t demand that you act like misbehaving children at professional trade shows.

In the long run, who will the prank hurt? Probably no one. CES isn’t likely going to stop handing out blogger credentials (except to the single Gizmodo blogger they banned for pulling the stunt), companies aren’t likely going to stop inviting bloggers to press events or take us off their press release lists or deny us any of the access we’ve gained (though some companies may take Gizmodo less seriously). And as Lam says, the TVs turn back on. But please, Mr. Lam, don’t try to equate a silly prank with a show of journalistic integretity. Annoying people at CES doesn’t make you a better journalist — or a journalist at all, for that matter.

Toward the end of today’s post, Lam mentions his blog’s interview with Bill Gates. “We got the guy to open up and talk about Windows and its shortcomings like he never has before, not even on 60 minutes,” Lam says. “If that’s not journalism, I don’t know what is. If we had been in the pocket of this industry, we never would have asked such a risky question.”

That is the sort of thing that makes you a journalist. And what’s wrong with letting the questions you ask prove your independent spirit? No amount of silly pranks will ever do so much to prove your integrity as will the actual reporting you do. That’s something that any blogger who wants to be taken seriously as a journalist must learn. Actions might speak louder than words, but not if your actions are juvenile stunts that obscure your reporting.

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