So Much for Transparency

Four days ago, the mailman delivered the April Wired, which has a great story on Microsoft’s Channel 9. I have closely watched the Channel 9 blogsite since its launch in April 2004. I blogged back then about what I expected: “Channel 9 is a brilliant marketing concept. Marketing is the key descriptor. The site is run by people paid to evangelize Microsoft products. Their job is to win over developers to Microsoft products”.

I also worried that Microsoft would use Channel 9 to replace journalists: “Company-controlled blogsites could be given first—or only—access to key product managers or executives; the insiders’ view, just like the Channel 9 positioning, but in reality managed dissemination”. 

That’s exactly what happened. Channel 9 appeared to make Microsoft more transparent, but in reality the blogsite decreased transparency. The Channel 9 video bloggers got exclusive access to people that weren’t available to reporters. Microsoft managed the message, with Microsoft bloggers interviewing Microsoft employees.

But there’s an interesting backstory, some of which the Wired story covers. I’m privy to more backstory, which I wouldn’t discuss until getting permission from other parties about stuff they revealed to me.

Some facts:

  • Channel 9 was conceived by a Mac guy, Lenn Pryor, who was not one of the Windows faithful. There’s an appropriateness and irony to this.
  • Lenn had to buck the Microsoft establishment, largely launching Channel 9 in stealth mode.
  • The three people most responsible for Channel 9’s launch and early success have all left Microsoft.
  • Channel 9 creates a false sense of transparency about Microsoft.
  • Microsoft pitched the Channel 9 and tried to manage the outcome.
  • Microsoft didn’t get the story it wanted—about transparency and the future—but rather more one about Channel 9’s troubled youth. That’s the other backstory I may post about later.

For now, Wired reporter Fred Vogelstein gives enlightening enough context in blog post “Microsoft Sends Secret Dossier on Reporter, to Reporter“. I have known for some time that Microsoft’s main PR agency keeps dirty files on reporters. Fred got his dirty file—uh, dossier—sent by accident. At 5,500 words, I consider it to be light reading. No doubt there are others, perhaps for every story. Microsoft is big into collaboration, so who knows outside the company or its main PR agency what volumes are generated about some reporters.

Fred’s dirty file is frightening reading. It is a testament to the lengths PR people will go to manipulate manage a reporter. The file positions Fred as a troublemaker, someone who is trying to be a problem where there should be none. Using words like insinuate to insinuate something nefarious in Fred’s tone and approach.

The dirty dossier makes clear the standard PR position that the news media is an extension of Microsoft public relations by statements like, “We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing” and “We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises”.

In an e-mail presumably sent from PR firm Waggener Edstrom to a Microsoft executive: “Briefing for your call with Wired is below. We want to keep it short and not offer any new avenues to him—Fred has done plenty of reporting here and it is time for him to stop and just write the article”.

Since when is a Waggener Edstrom employee a Wired editor? The dirty file goes on to explain how Microsoft repeatedly pitched the Channel 9 story.

I’ve seen the PR manipulation many times. Favorite example: Late one Wednesday evening in June 2001, I got an offer for a briefing with Windows XP product manager Shawn Sanford about Smart Tags. The briefing was given with no strings attached. I told my CNET editors, who were more than happy to get the scoop. They were happier still when my story scooped esteemed Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg. In the following day’s paper, Walt came out strongly against Smart Tags. I smelled a rat, and I told Walt so in a June 7 e-mail. The situation stank of manipulation, of using me to steal Walt’s thunder.

Returning to the main topic, Waggener Edstrom’s Frank Shaw responded to the 5,500-word dirty file by seemingly laying out from PR’s perspective what makes a good interview. His response is a misdirection; that’s a common public relation’s tactic. In a careful reading, Frank’s points don’t jive with the tone or direction of the dirty dossier, which even contains expected questions from Fred and scripted answers. Frank also flips around from the perspective of a reporter approaching PR with a story in mind. Microsoft repeatedly pitched the story, and the dirty file reads from that perspective.

Wired editor Chris “Long Tail” Anderson blogged, too. From his perspective, the “old [Microsoft] culture is not gone, as evidenced by an executive briefing memo”. So much for Microsoft transparency.

As a working journalist again, I see the new Microsoft to be very much less transparent than when I covered the company for CNET I get very little executive access, and many requests for interviews are rebuffed. The position is refreshing in a way. No one is trying to manage me.

Still, I am curious as to what revelations my dirty files would reveal.

In the spirit of transparency, I have no files on anyone. Half the time, I don’t remember that months or years ago I spoke to a Microsoft executive for today’s story. There’s news, a deadline, and a story. I write it and move on to the next one, typically forgetting what I wrote yesterday or last month. My only agenda is writing news—the facts as the reporting reveals them.

I’m rather indifferent about Microsoft, even though some people accuse me of bias because my writing style is tough rather than polite. At CNET, I wrote many punchy stories about Apple, all the while I was a Mac user. I saved the thousand or so angry e-mails from Mac enthusiasts who accused me of PC bias, of reporting unfairly. At the time, I was one of them.

I do have an opinion about Microsoft media manipulation. But that’s the role of public relations—to spin the story, isn’t it? That’s why there is conflict between journalists and PR people. The role of journalism is to report the facts. The role of corporate media relations is to bury them.