Gizmodo’s iPhone story and Checkbook Journalism

Today we learn that not one but two media companies with some of the most top-secret-hush-hush internal practices out there, Google and Apple, have recently suffered a major breach of that super-secrecy.

Google, which disclosed back in January that it was the victim of a cyberattack, we now learn from the New York Times, had one of its “crown jewels” stolen: a password system that the Times says “controls access by millions of users worldwide to almost all of the company’s Web services, including e-mail and business applications.”

In Apple’s case, an exclusive, not-yet-released fourth generation iPhone left at a California bar by a probably-totally-fired-by-now software engineer, later turned up dissected—literally and figuratively—on Gizmodo, a popular tech web site owned by Gawker Media, which paid $5,000 for the contraband phone and racked up two million hits with its exclusive sneak-peak.

Google’s ordeal is a scary privacy issue, for sure. But Apple’s misfortune seems somehow worse, because hackers are supposed to hack major companies like Google. That’s what they do. We expect them to, the same way we expect Somali pirates to attack container ships in the Gulf of Aden. It is a known threat, guarded against as best as is possible.

But losing a top-secret prototype is an unfortunate and pitiable thing. On the one hand, all is fair in love and corporate espionage and if you’re going to be so foolish, you kind of deserve it. But on the other hand, (if this truly isn’t a planted leak for publicity, as some suspect), we’ve all been that poor sap who lost something in a bar or a bus or a plane or a train, and it would be nice to think that there are Good Samaritans in the world, people who believe in the concept of the lost and found box, people who wouldn’t turn around and sell your lost goods to the highest bidder.

And besides being plain old not nice, this episode doesn’t exactly represent sound journalistic practice. Gizmodo didn’t have to shell out for that iPhone, as Jeff Bercovici points out at DailyFinance, where he criticizes their “checkbook journalism” and reports that many other sites—including Engadget, Daily Finance’s sister site and Gizmodo’s chief rival—passed it up. I’m sure they wish they had a couple million links from one post, but as Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky puts it:

We aren’t in the habit of paying for scoops. We don’t think checkbook journalism is a way to get good information, and it encourages awful behavior in tipsters.

Speaking of which, I will pay you all exactly nothing for weighing in. Was it fair or unfair for Gizmodo to take advantage of Apple’s folly? Is paying for scoops such a big deal? After all, People magazine regularly pays celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt bajillions of dollars for exclusive photos of their genetically perfect spawn. Are you bothered by the fact that Gizmodo paid for its scoop, or are you too excited to see the new iPhone’s guts spilled out on the screen to care?

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.