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Mac Journalism, or When Emotion Clogs the Brain

Glenn Fleishman and I wrote a review of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard that appeared in the Seattle Times last week (we jointly write a bi-weekly column called Practical Mac). Depending on the topic, we get a little email here and there from readers and the occasional request for advice that has nothing to do with the topic. And every once in a while we receive letters from people who are writing based more on their gut assumptions or feelings and very little to do with what was published. This week has seen several of these, and I’m a bit perplexed.

By far the biggest response has come from a section talking about the security improvements in Leopard, which are significant. I’m posting the entire section below as reference:

Beefed-up security. Microsoft received a lot of due credit for some significant changes in Vista’s underlying structure that prevent entire categories of viruses and worms.

The Mac has proved more resistant to attacks, partly through a lack of attention by crackers until recently, but the threat is still a possibility. Apple has taken a page from Microsoft’s book and added new security features that should improve the odds of deflecting future attacks.

Leopard will now record information about any program you download over the Internet and provide those details to you the first time you run it. This should prevent attacks that rely on ignorance or a program launch that carries out malicious intent before you know what hit you.

Apple also added digital signatures as an option, where encryption is used to verify a program is unchanged since it was produced by its developer.

Apparently, even mentioning Microsoft means we’re anti-Mac (as one person wrote). The latest email (which is titled “Do you work for M$?” which is a pretty clear sign that it’s not going to be friendly) starts, “After reading your article, ‘Apple’s latest cool cat,’ I was not sure. Your article was very biased towards MS/Windows.”

Let me point out that the section quoted above is about one-sixth of the article, which gives our mostly-positive impressions about the major new features in Leopard. If you read through this block, we’re essentially saying that Microsoft has had to deal with attacks; Apple has been immune so far but we know that won’t always be the case; and Apple has implemented a few technologies that appeared in Vista first.

Going back to the letter, where the author reveals his colors at the end: “The plain truth of the matter is, Apple has made the finest desktop Operating System for over a decade. What they have not been doing is ripping their customers of with predatory pricing, and SW licensing fees.”

(Incidentally, most of the letters followed a similar pattern: Start with a concern that we’ve gotten something wrong, maybe with a backhanded “you did make some good points, though” thrown in; make a case that’s only tangentially related to what was originally written; and end with a screed that finally gets to the person’s longstanding grudge, whether that happens to be “Microsoft is evil” or “Gaming on the Mac sucks because I can’t play my favorite game from 1997 on it”. I think this is the Mac reader equivalent to “monologuing” from The Incredibles.)

Look, I don’t like some of Microsoft’s business practices (they did engage in monopolistic behavior after all), but that doesn’t make them evil. Microsoft made a huge strategic mistake in not addressing security early or thoroughly enough, and they’re paying for it. Apple knows that Mac OS X isn’t going to be immune forever (currently hackers are exploiting a security hole in the version of Mac OS X that runs on the iPhone in order to unlock the phone), and frankly, anyone that thinks the Mac is infinitely rock solid is delusional. What keeps the Mac secure is not a BSD Unix foundation; it’s Apple being diligent and staying on top of exploits that are discovered.

Another recent example of how emotion clogs the brain was a short news piece we ran at TidBITS a couple of weeks ago. It involved an Apple board member whose high-profile usage of Macintosh technology aided in a huge amount of media coverage. Of course, I’m talking about the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to a number of researchers including Al Gore. Mark Anbinder wrote the piece, I edited it, and we both actively focused on what was news: Apple board member receives international recognition.

Here’s the entire two-paragraph article:

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, whose documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Academy Award (or “Oscar”) and who himself won an Emmy Award for his Current TV channel, last week added the ultimate award to his resume. The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize would be shared between Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such announcements are normally outside what we cover in TidBITS, but both Gore and his film are deeply connected to Apple and the Mac industry.

In fact, while we were hoping for other news from Apple’s PR machine (see “Leopard Slated for October 26th?,” 2007-10-04), they instead spent the day touting Gore’s achievement, customizing Apple’s home page and linking to multiple news reports on the Hot News page. The one-time politician, named to Apple’s board of directors in early 2003, has frequently been linked to the company’s products. He has for years been an avid user of Apple’s Final Cut Pro software, and he used Keynote to assemble the material presented in “An Inconvenient Truth.”

We specifically noted that this isn’t the type of thing we cover in TidBITS, but the connection between Apple and Gore is significant in the Mac industry. (We even correctly wrote that the film An Inconvenient Truth earned the Academy Award; Gore himself did not receive the award, as he was not one of the filmmakers, only the film’s subject.)

And yet, we were treated to several vitriolic emails and TidBITS Talk posts about how terrible Al Gore is. The words “Al” and “Gore” seem to make some people froth at the mouth no matter what context. A sample: “Come now. A ‘one-time politician’? Gore hasn’t stopped being a politician for 50 years, and can’t stop. If Apple wants to use its time PRing a politician/board member, let them do it. But TidBits [sic] time is too valuable to use even mentioning a politician (any politician) in its pages. Please save that for the news channels.”

I know that people have strong views, and I want to encourage freedom of expression. But ranting for the sake of ranting is just a waste of our (your and my) time. I understand why mainstream journalists who don’t cover the Mac get defensive and start throwing out words like “Mac zealots” and “cultists” when they cover Apple; they no doubt get much, much more volume of this type of email and don’t know how to handle it.

To try to encourage better communication here are a few suggestions for people who feel compelled to write:

  • Ask yourself, “Am I writing to correct a factual error or to provide constructive information?” If so, send it along! If not, then assume you’re ranting.
  • If you’re ranting, ask yourself, “Does my rant directly deal with what was written, or am I just pissed?” If you’re just pissed and writing a response helps get that out of your system, do it but don’t send it. (Or, look at it tomorrow after you’ve slept on it and then decide whether to send it.) Or if you just need to rant, start a blog to do it.
  • Threatening or insulting the person you’re writing to doesn’t help your case. In fact, it’s a sure bet that I’ll just toss it out. If you’re compelled to make a statement about how well portions of my anatomy are (or are incapable of) operating, I won’t pay any attention to whatever else you might say, even if it’s legitimate. As Glenn wrote to one person, “You can’t start nasty and expect a dialog.”
  • If you’re writing because you think I’m somehow in bed with Microsoft or anti-Apple (or fervently pro-Apple) or that I’m getting some back-room kickback, know that I’m not. Glenn and I are freelance writers expressing our opinions. No one is pressuring us, no one is paying us (aside from the publication for whom we’re writing for), no one has set up some cushy retirement fund that we get to tap into if we write X or Y.
  • And if you legitimately have a concern with something we’ve written, and you can express it in a civil way, let us know and we can talk about it. (However, if you’re just looking for random tech support, we don’t have time to troubleshoot everyone’s issues; Google search is your friend.)

Emotion doesn’t have to clog the brain, and the best part is that even when it does (and I know it does), it’s not a permanent affliction. A little bit of consideration will ensure that your time and mine aren’t wasted.

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