Fake Steve Jobs on the iPad, conflict of interest, and Apple's draconian PR tactics

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Remember the epic Phantom Menace review? Well, here's Attack of the Clones

It’s no secret that there weren’t many iPads given out ahead of time. Apple is, of course, notorious for their extreme secrecy and the hammer that inevitably comes down on leakers and embargo breakers. They have the press in the hollow of their hand, with the iPad more than ever. Time and Newsweek are competing for who gets the best coverage of the device both establishments hope will revitalize their industry. The power balance is tipped unusually far in Apple’s direction, and while you can’t blame them for whipping the world into a iFroth over their new product, you can certainly be annoyed that you don’t get to do your job and write about it, as has been the case with many tech journalists.

Daniel Lyons, AKA Fake Steve Jobs, makes a living (or at least a hobby) of reporting and lampooning Apple news. Unfortunately, his controversial status meant that his employer, Newsweek, got pretty much left out of the iPad party. Lyons and Recovering Journalist blogger Mark Potts weigh in on Apple’s tactics and the politics of tech journalism in this interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here, what with multinational corporations doing business with each other, and in the case of a haughty and personality-driven company like Apple, you’re always going to see sparks fly. Everybody knows Apple is a big seller when it comes to eyeballs, and Apple knows this too — their “punctuated equilibrium” product model lends itself to highly controlled press orgies like the one that’s been raging for the last few months. So they have the power and they’re not afraid to use it. Good for them and their shareholders. But what about news organizations? Are they beholden to a higher standard than staying in the black? Lyons:

Their head of PR told my predecessor, Steven Levy, to password word to the powers that be at “Newsweek” that Apple wasn’t happy with the idea that they were going to hire me. Yes, that happened. And Apple plays this game.

I mean, notice who got iPads and who didn’t get iPads. Notice who got access and who didn’t.

And the other interesting thing here when you’re talking about the media and Apple is that, you know, the media — “The New York Times” was on stage with Apple, with Steve Jobs, at the announcement of the iPad, right? “TIME” had to have Stephen Frey, an actor, write about the iPad because their tech editor is running their iPad, their iPad development team.

So, the media in this case has really gotten in bed with Apple. And yes, it does raise questions about, how do you cover something when it’s your own business, in a sense, you’re covering?

[note: Levy, or someone claiming to be him, disputes that Apple contacted him.]

It’s not a condemnation of the news organizations; they’re just casting about for a bit of wood on which to stay afloat in these troubled times. This one was big enough to really get their arms around, and they’ve done so with gusto. I can’t blame them, but it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether they even would give a negative review to something in which they’ve invested so much, indeed in which they themselves are invested. Is it a conflict of interest? Sure. But they’re between a rock and a hard place. What could they do, just not cover it? I don’t envy their position, and I don’t envy the position of someone like Lyons, who is prevented from doing what he does best.
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Here’s the rough transcript of the interview. There’s no video yet but I’ll update if it hits.


KURTZ: The iPad finally hit the stores yesterday. And if the media hype is to be believed, the world has already changed.

Apple has sold about 700,000 of these tablets so far. And Newsweek’s cover story says it is indeed a very big deal. “The very simplicity of the iPad masks its transformational power,” writes Daniel Lyons. Some say the iPad heralds a new era of computing, and I’m inclined to believe them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCFADDEN: And we turn now to technology and what some people say is the smartest, coolest company in America.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: It’s the hottest tablet since Moses carried a couple down off the mountain. I’m talking about the iPad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, “MODERN FAMILY”: His last wish was an iPad.

JOHN BLACKSTONE, CBS NEWS (voice-over): In an ambitious act of product placement, last night’s episode of ABC’s “Modern Family” was all about the iPad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, “MODERN FAMILY”: Oh, my God. You got it! All this time I thought I didn’t care, but I do care. I care so much!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: From the moment that Steve Jobs rolled out his new gizmo back in January, many in the media have treated it as the second coming. And there’s been chatter that the device could breathe new life
into the struggling newspaper and magazine business by providing a hot new platform.

But is the iPad really as important as some of the breathless coverage suggests?

Joining us now here in Washington, veteran journalist Mark Potts, now chief executive of Growth Spur, an online technology company. And in Boston, Daniel Lyons, senior editor for “Newsweek” and the author of this week’s cover story.

Dan Lyons, “Newsweek” cover, “TIME” cover, “New York Times” front page, all over TV.

Is the iPad, this thing that I didn’t realize that I needed, that awe-inspiring?

DANIEL LYONS, SR. EDITOR, “NEWSWEEK”: Well, I think it is a really important device. It’s really cool. But I think, you know, the other thing to consider is, if you’re a tech writer like me, you cover
technology, you never get a chance to shine.

Technology’s pretty boring stuff. And so these things are like the Super Bowl for us. You know?

I mean, once a year, I have to sit through all that Super Bowl coverage even though I don’t care about football. In our world, in the world of tech geeks, yes, this is our Super Bowl. This is a really big
deal for us, I think. And that’s why we all kind of hyperventilate about it.

KURTZ: I don’t know, it seems like the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Final Four rolled into one.

Mark, you’ve got your hands on one. You can hold it up if you like.

How is it, Mark, that Apple always seems to get the media in a total lather about its latest product?

MARK POTTS, “RECOVERING JOURNALIST” BLOG: You know, I’m not sure. It really is amazing. It’s been going on for years.

I remember going to the announcement — they were going to announce the Newton a year beforehand and getting a huge crowd. There’s something about Apple that seems to get this kind of attention that no
other product seems to get. You know, three years ago, the Netbook computers came out and no one really said anything. It wasn’t an Apple product, but they’re just as revolutionary as the iPad is in their way.

KURTZ: Dan, you blog as fake Steve Jobs. How does the real Steve Jobs do it? For example, here, giving your competitor, “TIME,” an exclusive interview and he gets his face on the cover?

LYONS: Well, you know, Apple has been very, very good in terms of playing the media for a long, long time. For decades, right? And the game they always used to play was to play time off of “Newsweek,” for example, and to get them both to sort of compete to see who would get the access to Steve, who would get the exclusive interview.

“Newsweek” sort of opted out of that game when they hired me a couple years ago. Apple doesn’t like me at all because of the blog I write. And Apple actually made it clear to “Newsweek” before they hired
me — or they got wind that I was going to get hired — that they didn’t want “Newsweek” to hire me, they weren’t going to like this.

And “Newsweek” hired me anyway, but sure enough, we didn’t get any access, we didn’t get — I don’t have an iPad. I didn’t get a device from Apple.

KURTZ: You don’t have an iPad? You’re admitting that on national television?

LYONS: No.

KURTZ: Well, let me make sure I understand this.

LYONS: And yesterday — I was going to buy one yesterday, but then I was busy and I have kids. And, you know –

KURTZ: You had a life.

LYONS: — I like to wait anyway and see –

KURTZ: I just want to follow up on something you said. Apple executives went to “Newsweek” and said don’t hire this guy, Dan Lyons? We don’t like he writes this fake Steve Jobs — they tried to block you
from being hired?

LYONS: Their head of PR told my predecessor, Steven Levy, to password word to the powers that be at “Newsweek” that Apple wasn’t happy with the idea that they were going to hire me. Yes, that
happened. And apple plays this game.

I mean, notice who got iPads and who didn’t get iPads. Notice who got access and who didn’t.

And the other interesting thing here when you’re talking about the media and Apple is that, you know, the media — “The New York Times” was on stage with Apple, with Steve Jobs, at the announcement of the iPad, right? “TIME” had to have Stephen Frey, an actor, write about the iPad because their tech editor is running their iPad, their iPad development team.

So, the media in this case has really gotten in bed with Apple. And yes, it does raise questions about, how do you cover something when it’s your own business, in a sense, you’re covering?

KURTZ: That’s an interesting point, Mark Potts, which is that every media organization — and I’ve been flooded with e-mails — is touting its own app for the iPad. And so they are both covering the story,
they’re part of the story, they’re hoping to profit from this new device, and hoping that it — particularly for print, hoping that it revives a business that’s clearly battered and struggling.

So, does that put everyone in a little bit of a conflict situation?

POTTS: Yes, I think it does. There certainly is a lot of wishful thinking attached to the industry right now — can this be our savior? The traditional industry is falling apart.

On the other hand, a lot of that’s going on in the business side of the publications. The editorial side theoretically is separate. I think there’s probably some of the same — some of the same wishful
thinking.

But I think there’s also the fact that a lot of tech writers, a lot of people who cover technology, are Apple fans to begin with and they’re inclined to like things from the company. And they don’t — you know,
they don’t get as excited about something from Dell.

KURTZ: Interesting.

I wonder since you say — go ahead, Dan. Go ahead.

LYONS: Well, for good reason. I mean, when is the last time anything came out of Dell that was anything to get excited about?

I mean, it’s not really — I agree with you, most of us in the media, I like Apple products, most of us use Apple products. And so because of that, we’re kind of fan boys anyway.

But really, honestly, I mean, when was the last time Microsoft came out with anything that you really wanted to ooh and ah about, that you really wanted to see? And it’s not just that we don’t like Microsoft or
we don’t like Dell. They just don’t come out with things that are very interesting or very beautiful.

I mean, I like to look at the Pontiac Aztec. You know, it had four wheels and an engine and everything, but it was an ugly car. Nobody wanted it. Well, most of the tech industry is making Pontiac Aztecs.
You know?

POTTS: Well, actually, Microsoft had a tablet six or seven years ago they did with HP and others that was interesting in its way at the time as the iPad is, but it didn’t get anywhere near this kind of
coverage.

KURTZ: I’ve got half a minute here for you, Mark Potts.

Do tech writers have a tendency to get swept away by all the cool features and not focused on ordinary people who are asking, why shouldn’t I pay $500 or $800 for something that doesn’t have a camera
and doesn’t have a physical keyboard and so on?

POTTS: You know, I think that’s a really good question. And I think — I’d almost go a different way with it, which is tech writers tend to focus on the cool tech things it doesn’t do and say, well, it
doesn’t multitask and doesn’t use flash.

Most people watching this have no idea what that means. And tech writers think it’s very important. For most people, they want to know, does it turn on, can I type on it, can I use it, can I read the Web on
it, can I do my e-mail on it? That’s what they care about.

KURTZ: And while you were answering that question I borrowed your iPad and I’m holding it up right here. I don’t know if you can see, but it’s got “USA Today” on it, and you can move it around. It’s cool.

Can I play with this after –

POTTS: Absolutely.

KURTZ: All right. Mark Potts, Dan Lyons, thanks very much for joining us.


Edit: I feel I should add something to the effect that although it may seem like entitlement for every blog to think Apple has an iPad just for them, there is a level of reasonable expectation that is generally fulfilled by other companies. With Apple, however, one has the feeling of being either part of their plan or completely negligible, something I noted before. I’m not questioning their right to do this, or the tactic’s effectiveness, I just wish it were otherwise and I know I’m not alone in that.

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