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Technology Disassembled 

A columnist defends himself, blames his bosses, and steps deeper into the ethical morass of accepting gifts

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
New York Times online tech columnist and CBS News contributor David Pogue is a real card in the geek world. He writes funny computer manuals. In speeches he sings songs about the computer industry to the tunes of Christmas carols. On his Web site he offers fans a choice of nine goofy drawings of his face to download for use as computer icons.

Pogue's latest caper, however, transcends his prior status as a merely amusing person. He's become hilarious.

Last month Pogue embarrassed his blue-chip media employers by accepting $2,000 in services from a news source, then claiming this was in line with these news organizations' ordinary practice. He then did himself one stunt better after the blogosphere lit up last month over a column I wrote about his freebie deal. Pogue called in to a CNET podcast in an attempt to defend his behavior. Again, he kicked blame upstairs, suggesting to listeners that until my column came along these news organizations had no problem with his brand of high-dollar swag.

Pogue pranked, then pranked again the New York Times and CBS News. In SF Weekly's book, Pogue has reached for the commanding heights of silliness. He's become the Ashton Kutcher of tech.

Pogue suffered a hard-drive crash a few months ago, went to the Novato firm DriveSavers to retrieve his data, and did stories about that service for NPR, the New York Times, and CBS News. DriveSavers waived $2,000 in fees as a "professional courtesy." In the news business, taking something of significant value from someone you're doing a story on calls into question a reporter's objectivity. It creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. It's a no-no.

After I wrote a column about this (see "The Free Press," March 15, 2006), news of Pogue's sweet deal floated through the journalism and technology blogospheres. It even led to an on-air apology on CBS in which Charles Osgood told viewers the network was sorry, and so was Pogue.

Osgood may have exaggerated Pogue's contrition.

Following the column, the CBS apology, and blog storm, an apparently frustrated Pogue phoned in impromptu to a CNET podcast called "Buzz Out Loud Lounge," where hosts Tom Merritt and Molly Wood had cited my column and questioned Pogue's ethics in a previous program.

After I listened to Pogue speciously explain away his actions, and I then ran his rationalizations by his bosses at the New York Times and CBS News. I had to laugh. Pogue apparently became so preoccupied with rationalizing his own ethical breach that he sullied his reputation further by publicly mischaracterizing his deeds. (I e-mailed him a list of his "Buzz" misstatements and asked for comment. Pogue e-mailed back: "My editors, producers, and I all agree on these points: that public apologies have been made, DriveSavers has been reimbursed, and now we move on.")

Pogue started off his talk show appearance by saying he wanted to set the record straight after he'd been improperly tainted by descriptions of his DriveSavers freebie. He apparently seemed to think he'd done little wrong. "My CBS producers also knew the background of all this," he claimed, with high-pitched emphasis.

I referred a CBS spokeswoman to the CNET recording. She told me CBS had not been aware Pogue received $2,000 in free DriveSavers services.

Pogue then suggested the New York Times, the original home of his data retrieval story, had no ethical policy in place that would have addressed his freebie deal. "So the bottom line is," he said, "the Times has no policy on services. I can send you copies of the ethical guidelines, and there's absolutely no reference to what to do about reviewing services. This has now been deemed an oversight."

I referred Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty to a recording of the CNET podcast. Speaking specifically about the previous statement, she said, "David Pogue had apparently misunderstood the policy if he thought it allowed him to review a technical service without paying for it, and his editor told him so."

McNulty added that the official policy will be modified. The Times will place the single word "services" in the text to prevent any journalists from somehow thinking there existed a service loophole to the no-gift rule.

I don't know what to make of Pogue's assertion that I'm a no-name blogger, other than to say that I've never contributed to a blog, and that this is the lead column of a 100,000-circulation-per-week newspaper. But I know what to say about Pogue's bogus claim that I quoted the Times' McNulty out of context.

In my March 15 column, I quoted McNulty stating, "New York Times rules require travel writers, or freelancers for our travel section and magazines, to pay for everything they do, and bar writers who have ever accepted freebies from writing for us. Our restaurant critics always pay for their meals."

Pogue said in the CNET podcast that this was a statement with "no relevance" to his case. However, McNulty was specifically refuting a suggestion by Pogue — which I had forwarded to the Times — that his $2,000 freebie wasn't unusual, because all travel writers and other journalists get similar freebies. In a very relevant, on-point fashion, McNulty was merely calling Pogue on his wacky nonsense.

Pogue continued with his "SF Weekly's not fair" comedic riff. "What the SF Weekly guy is saying is that I called up DriveSavers one day and said, 'If you fix my drive for free I'll put you on TV,'" he said, setting up a straw man to topple.

I actually wrote "New York Times columnist David Pogue, who is also a contributor to CBS News and National Public Radio, received $2,000 in free personal data recovery services from DriveSavers in connection with pieces Pogue did for all three news organizations."

Nobody denies this fact. And few of the professional journalists who've contacted me via e-mail to comment on the story, much less any of Pogue's employers, have suggested his actions were anything less than a serious ethical breach. Yet Pogue sought out a public forum in an attempt to dissemble his way around such criticisms, impugning his employers in the process.

That's just plain funny.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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