While preparing for this past Macworld Expo in San Francisco, a number of us journalists found our requests for media passes denied by IDG World Expo, whose representative claimed that the new policy was to allow only a single representative from each media outlet access to the keynote. This pronouncement was met with much irate spluttering, since many publications, including TidBITS, send multiple representatives to Macworld Expo to cover both the keynote and the rest of the show. IDG World Expo claimed the policy was necessary because of restricted space in the keynote hall. Luckily, it ended up not affecting us, since Tonya, Jeff Carlson, and I were also giving presentations at the show, and speakers were allowed into the keynote with no restrictions; also, IDG World Expo was happy to give us press passes for the rest of the show.
When the appointed time arrived on that Tuesday morning, we queued up with the rest of the speakers and were led by an Apple person into a specific portion of the spacious hall leading toward the ballroom where the keynote would take place. As usual, the VIPs are led into the hall first, while conference attendees who were allowed into the keynote were collected off to one side – but we saw no sign of our friends in the media. The previous year, we had been corralled in the depths of Moscone Center with the rest of the press, with some folks being led up to the main hall, and others being forced to stay behind to watch the keynote on screens in what was termed the "overflow room." So we didn’t think much of the lack of the press at the time, figuring that they were simply behind us somewhere.
But then I caught sight of a friend at Apple who I’d met at MacHack years before and waved to him. He saw me and waved back across the crowd, a huge look of relief on his face. Just then, our speaker group was led into the hall, where Steve Jobs introduced iLife ’06, the Intel-based iMac, and the MacBook Pro. Afterwards, I ran into my friend again on the way out. He asked how we’d gotten into the keynote, and with some irritation, I related the whole story of having to use our speaker badges instead of our press passes. "But it wasn’t a big deal," I ended, "even though we had to sit pretty far back, and ended up essentially watching the entire keynote on the big screen, since the stage was so far away. In fact, it was probably better," I joked, "since we didn’t take the full brunt of Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field. It was probably just like watching from the press overflow room."
He glanced around to make sure no one was listening and muttered, "I’m glad you weren’t in there; I hear they’ve moved into phase three of the AJRP."
"The what?" I asked.
"I can’t talk about it here," he said, "but I’ll forward you something via email later on. Give me the fingerprint for your public PGP key." We exchanged PGP fingerprints, and I went off to cover the show, utterly mystified.
Needless to say, I soon forgot about my friend’s odd behavior, and since it’s nearly impossible to keep up with email while at the show, it wasn’t until the plane ride home that I happened upon his message. I decrypted it, and read the following short email discussion, dated from a bit more than five years ago – names had been removed.
Subject: AJRP phase 2 We have the go-ahead from SJ on AJRP phase 2. Phase 1 subjects are showing no signs of rejecting the RDF implants. The next step is to choose who will participate in phase 2. Recommend starting with DRW, TYN, TSC, EMT, JSW, GB.
Subject: Re: AJRP phase 2
Recommend starting with DRW, TYN, TSC, EMT, JSW, GB. Let’s swing for the fences with EMT, JSW, TYN.
Subject: Re: AJRP phase 2
> Recommend starting with DRW, TYN, TSC, EMT, JSW, GB. Let’s swing for the fences with EMT, JSW, TYN. Agreed. Please coordinate with PR on their briefing times.
At first I could make relatively little of the terse messages, but after some puzzling over the acronyms, I realized that at least some of them were abbreviations for publications, with the letters reversed. JSW was WSJ – the Wall Street Journal. TYN was NYT – the New York Times. And as for EMT, TME didn’t make a lot of sense until I guessed at the missing vowel: Time Magazine. And what the heck could an RDF implant be?
With some concentrated Web searching and use of the Internet Archive, I was able to assemble a relatively complete collection of stories filed about Apple by those three publications since 1999; I wanted to see if there had been any change after 2001 when this AJRP had supposedly taken place. Indeed, although there were stories about Apple from a number of writers in each publication over that time period, those from Walter Mossberg at the Journal, David Pogue at the Times, and Josh Quittner at Time were, frankly, pretty positive. Take a look at some of these quotes:
First, Josh Quittner from his famous article about the iMac G4, which Time Canada accidentally posted before the iMac was unveiled at Macworld Expo in 2002: "With its overhaul of the popular iMac, Apple has again created a masterpiece of design." The rest was described as "feverishly positive" in a New York Times article about the embargo flub.
Clearly David Pogue likes the latest iPod, calling it "the smallest, simplest and best-looking pocket video player."
But the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg takes the cake, saying, "I believe that, at the moment, Apple makes the best computers, and the best operating system, for mainstream consumers doing typical tasks – email, web surfing, office-productivity functions such as word processing and presentations, photo organizing and editing, playing and collecting music, and editing home video."
I was starting to get a sense of what an RDF implant might be – a device that somehow increased the already astonishing power of Steve Jobs’s famed Reality Distortion Field. For those who haven’t experienced the RDF, it’s something else. Tonya and I had our first experience with it close up during our senior year at Cornell University in 1988-89, when Jobs came to cut the ribbon on the first public room of NeXT cubes at Cornell. We were student supervisors, and the computer room in Upson Hall was one of those that our people operated, so we were in the front row when Jobs came and gave a short speech before cutting the ribbon to open the room. To this day, Tonya only mutters about how amazing his shoes were. But I remember how thoroughly I was taken in by the RDF, how utterly world-changing I thought the NeXT cubes were going to be, with their optical drives and 400 dpi laser printers. Of course, after he left, the RDF’s effect slowly faded, and within a week, we were cursing the drives (which sucked in dust and failed regularly), rebooting version 0.8 of the operating system constantly, and torturing Display PostScript as our feeble attempt to get back the machines for significantly increasing our workload.
But what could AJRP stand for? PRJA – assuming it was backwards like the other acronyms – didn’t make any more sense. I noticed my friend was online in iChat shortly after, and when I opened a chat with him, iChat showed that since we were both .Mac members, the chat was encrypted. "What’s AJRP expand to?" I asked. His reply was terse, "Apple Journalist Reeducation Program."
Suddenly it all came clear. Phase 1 must have been the initial testing of the RDF implant – perhaps a few people who came to the Genius Bar at a particular Apple Store for advice on which Mac to buy were taken in the back room for a "personal consultation" and given the RDF implant before being sent out to evangelize Apple. Phase 2 was more ambitious – those private briefings that top-level journalists are given with company brass could have been Apple’s chance to get to Mossberg, Pogue, and Quittner and ensure positive press from their influential publications. And phase 3 – well, Apple hasn’t been taking much flak of late, so there’s no telling how many journalists are now included in the AJRP but the media room at Macworld Expo was crowded. Apple undoubtedly didn’t want to tip its hand; hence the one pass per media outlet policy, ensuring that there could still be dissenting opinions. At least for a while…
All we can recommend is that you pay close attention to what you read about Apple these days, and consider whether the author might have been co-opted by the AJRP. At big conferences like Macworld Expo, the TidBITS team will be sticking together for mutual protection, and we’ve created an automated system that will post a pre-arranged message to ExtraBITS in the event that Apple does manage to get to us. So keep an eye on our home page, and if you see a headline announcing "Record iPod and iTunes Music Store Sales!" you’ll know we’ve succumbed. Wish us luck, and watch our backs.