MSNBC: Network meets Netheads
Can Microsoft cover high tech without bias? MSNBC, the 24-hour cable and on-line news service that is also a joint venture of NBC and Redmond, Washington based Microsoft, will put the question to the test. Recently, MSNBC confirmed long-denied speculation that it is jumping into the news business wholeheartedly by enlisting journalists on the Microsoft "campus" to do original reporting, rather than merely repackaging NBC and wire service stories. And guess what these Microsoft-based reporters will be focusing on: technology, as part of an overall business slant. It's a natural subject for an on-line audience, but in terms of the thorny ethical issues it presents, it's as if NBC's news coverage centered on the power industry at the time it was taken over by General Electric.There has been little reaction from journalists so far, probably in part because few are aware of Microsoft's role in the complicated corporate structure of MSNBC, which has just been worked out over the last few weeks. Technically, the news service is not one organization but two: MSNBC Cable, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and MSNBC on the Internet, based in Redmond. "If there has been one dictate that has come down from on high, it's that this isn't two separate entities," says Kenan Block, a senior producer on the cable side based in Washington, DC, who came from the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. "We really are to work as partners."Nonetheless, the two organizations differ in one crucial respect -- who their journalists are working for. The New Jersey reporters are employees of NBC. The Redmond reporters are employees of, well, that's a bit unclear. Scott Moore, director of business affairs for the on-line side, says that MSNBC is the employer. But he also allows that Microsoft is the managing partner of his division, in the same way that NBC is the managing partner of the cable division. Moore says, too, that a special benefits-and-compensation package has been developed for MSNBC on the Internet. Yet he declines to comment on the crucial question of whether its journalists will be given the normal Microsoft perk of stock options, thereby giving them a direct financial stake in the company's well-being. The question is doubly important when you consider that these journalists will be focusing on technology."If you're a technology reporter these days, you can't get around covering Microsoft," says Atlantic editor James Fallows, who has become a crusading figure of late on media ethics and who also writes about technology. He says that if he were running MSNBC he would take pains to insulate technology reporters as much as possible from Microsoft's corporate interests, beginning with precluding those reporters from holding company stock. "Reporting on the company while holding stock options would seem impossible," he says. Ziff-Davis Publishing, whose array of computer trade magazines and on-line services make it the largest publishing force in the industry, adheres to the same belief. Its editorial policy forbids not only employees but their immediate families from holding stock in any computer company, according to several top executives. (Ziff itself is privately held.)"Wow," marvels Eric Lundquist, editor-in-chief of the Ziff-Davis magazine PC Week, upon learning that Redmond reporters would be covering technology. Given that situation, Lundquist concludes that Microsoft will have to practice "eternal vigilance" to make certain no bias creeps in. Others surmise that the appearance of conflict of interest is so blatant that any bias would only hurt Microsoft, a viewpoint that Microsoft executives also espouse. "I'm just waiting and watching to see if Microsoft is dumb enough to cut its own throat," says Robbin Young, an editor at the Redmond trade publication Windows Watcher. Even so, Young feels that MSNBC has a challenge on its hands in attracting an audience. "If you had to pick between a clearly unbiased news source and a suspect news source, which would you pick?""It's interesting that PC Week's Lundquist didn't know about MSNBC's plans with regard to original reporting given that his corporate parent is playing a highly visible role in the endeavor. From a brand-new TV studio in San Francisco built specially for the project, Ziff-Davis is producing a nightly hour-long show about technology for MSNBC Cable called The Site, as well as an affiliated Web site that will be linked to MSNBC on the Internet. Suzanne Stefanac, executive producer of The Site's on-line site, says that Ziff-Davis agreed to the project on the condition that Microsoft would have no editorial control. "It was a big deal to me," says Stefanac, a former reporter for the trade publication MacWorld. Even with Microsoft's agreement to stay hands off, Stefanac says, some journalists chose not to join the project out of concern about conflict of interest.Yet The Site is one of the most intriguing projects announced so far by MSNBC. The first national news show to be broadcast from the West Coast in a long time, it will look at broad issues of how technology is affecting the way people live, taking care to include the skeptical voice of Clifford Stoll, author of Snake Oil on the Information Highway. Stoll says he feels under no pressure from Microsoft or anyone else. "The instructions they gave me were: Keep your [verbal] essays under five minutes, don't plug anything, and have fun." Last week, he was planning to take one of his first shots at what he calls the "utterly bogus" idea of creating an Internet university.The Site's determined editorial independence from Microsoft may, by implication, rebuke the notion of Microsoft technology reporters. But, to some extent, their counterparts at Ziff-Davis are in the same boat since the publishing company was recently acquired by Softbank Corp., one of Japan's largest distributors of computer products. Moreover, John Batelle, executive managing editor at Wired magazine, notes that trade publishing companies like Ziff-Davis have long enjoyed a cozy relationship with their advertisers simply by virtue of the fact that "their advertisers are the same people that they write about." Furthermore, reporters in the trade press frequently jump into the business side of the industry, just as political reporters have often gone into politics. A few weeks ago, widely respected columnist Stewart Alsop left his job at Information Week to become a partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm called New Enterprise Associates.When it comes to the general-interest press, practically every TV station and newspaper around have had talks with on-line companies they report on about some kind of joint venture. And, as Microsoft news executive Scott Moore suggests, how much sense does it make to talk about the independence of the press at a time when the country's biggest media players are General Electric, Time Warner, Disney/Capital Cities, and Westinghouse? Many journalists argue that news coverage has in no way suffered. Others question whether, for example, NBC has covered the nuclear power industry as aggressively as it might. Perhaps more to the point is Tom Brokaw's infamous puff profile of Bill Gates on NBC late last year, which took place around the same time that Brokaw was reportedly pitching to Gates a possible joint venture between their respective organizations.Yet Microsoft adamantly insists that its own reportage will be unbiased. "Microsoft understands that if we were to attempt to influence editorial we would completely undermine our credibility," says Moore, adding that journalists "will operate independently of Microsoft's corporate interests." All of MSNBC's Redmond employees have sat through workshops held by NBC about journalistic standards and practices. Quite a number of those employees are already well versed in the matter. Acting managing editor Merrill Brown has spent time at a host of media organizations including Court TV and a TV trade publication called Channels Magazine. Lynn Povich, a veteran editor who made her career at Newsweek, will head a features section from New Jersey. Former CBS producer Michael Silberman will head a special-projects team.Moreover, technology reporters will not attempt product reviews, explains Moore. Nor, he says, will there be a reporter covering Microsoft as a beat. He says that, instead, these "cyberjournalists" will focus on both telecommunications and "the convergence of Silicon Valley and Hollywood," with an emphasis on "how technology is changing entertainment." As it happens, Microsoft is at the center of these phenomena. Witness DreamWorks Interactive, Microsoft's joint venture with Steven Spielberg and company; Slate, Microsoft's new on-line magazine edited by renowned journalist Michael Kinsley; and MSNBC itself. But at least this beat sidesteps the most obvious credibility problem of Microsoft reporters reviewing Microsoft products.MSNBC's on-line division will also maintain a reporter in Washington, DC, covering cyberpolitics as well as politics at large. It will also periodically send reporters on the road, starting with coverage of the Olympics and the political conventions. Aside from technology, the news service will specialize in coverage of business in new markets on the Pacific Rim. It will offer general news courtesy of NBC and wire services like Associated Press. Moore simply asks that Microsoft's news service not be judged before it has a chance to prove itself. In spite of the neon-red flag that MSNBC's corporate ties have sent up, most everyone in the journalism business seems willing to oblige, under the rubric that the proof is in the pudding.An early taste of that pudding, however, is bittersweet. The first issue of Slate, released last month, announced its independence with an email forum on the heretical topic "Does Microsoft Play Fair?" However, it is noteworthy that Slate avoided taking any editorial line on the subject by addressing it through a forum of outside commentators. "In almost no way does it make the case that Microsoft employees can be independent," says The Atlantic's James Fallows, who participated in the forum as a Microsoft critic. Fallows also notes that the ratio of Microsoft fans to critics on the forum was stacked 3-2.That being said, the forum offered a fascinating, no-holes-barred duel between Fallows and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's executive vice president for worldwide sales and support. Aided by fellow Microsoft critic and New York Times columnist James Gleick, Fallows pressed Ballmer to the wall by repeatedly asking him to commit to making Windows a completely open platform, meaning that Microsoft developers would not have access to exclusive information about how the operating system works, giving them an edge on the competition in building applications like spreadsheets. Ballmer just as repeatedly replied that the operating system was already open, while being evasive on whether Microsoft developers enjoy any special privileges.As for MSNBC, a Microsoft critic it may never be, but it will be doing all right if it presents material as lively and as interesting.