Interviews: Confrontation or Critical Collaboration?

Lessons from David Pogue, Steve Jobs, and Leo Laporte

Was David Pogue too easy on Steve Jobs?

Was David Pogue too easy on Steve Jobs?

A recent kerfuffle in the blogosphere/podosphere involving New York Times tech columnist David Pogue offers B2B journalists and editors some interesting ethical issues to mull over. Pogue has been under attack for supposed conflicts of interest, first in an August 26 review of Apple’s Snow Leopard OS upgrade, then in his short interview with Steve Jobs following Apple’s announcement of new iPods.

Despite his affable personality, Pogue is a lightning rod for criticism, thanks to his reputation, fair or not, as an Apple fanboy and his privileged position as a popular Times columnist. The stage for this most recent imbroglio was set when Pogue published his mostly positive review of Snow Leopard. The review evidently irritated podcaster Leo Laporte, who had a largely negative opinion of the upgrade. It probably didn’t help that Pogue seemed to suggest in his review that Snow Leopard detractors were just “haters.” That implication provoked Laporte, on an episode of his flagship podcast, “This Week in Tech” (TWiT), to sarcastically proclaim “I am a hater; come and get me, David Pogue.”

Laporte was by no means alone in his reaction. Apparently, enough complaints about Pogue’s review came into the Times that its public editor and ethics watchdog, Clark Hoyt, devoted a column to the ethical issues—particularly the problem of “reviewing products and simultaneously writing guides to them”—raised by Pogue’s role at the paper.

Flash forward to two weeks later, when Apple holds a September 9 press event promoting its new iPod models. Pogue is one of a handful of major-league reviewers granted a short interview with Steve Jobs. He asks Jobs the obvious question: Why no camera in the iPod Touch?  Jobs answers that it’s because Apple wanted to keep the price low. Rather than question that reply, Pogue goes on to his next question.

Thus the controversy. It’s obvious, Laporte and others say, that Jobs was “lying.” On another TWiT episode later that week, Laporte and his guests, particularly Jason Calacanis, savaged Pogue for his failure to challenge Jobs’s assertion.  So my question is, looking at this from a B2B point of view, does Pogue deserve all this criticism?

First of all, I do buy the argument that Apple wanted to include a camera in the Touch but for some reason couldn’t. But my opinion is based in part on evidence that came to light after September 9. And looked at objectively, Jobs’s answer doesn’t seem to strain the bounds of credulity. On that day, in Pogue’s position, I don’t know that I would have felt a need to challenge it. But more importantly, was it really Pogue’s role or responsibility to confront Jobs on such matters?

This was the heart of Pogue’s defense when he was interviewed by Laporte for episode 213 of TWiT. Observing that a commenter on Pogue’s blog said “You should have nailed Jobs’s ass to the wall,” Pogue added, “yeah maybe I should have, but is that my job?”

I’m not so sure Leo would have put the tough question to Jobs either. In the interview, Pogue asked Laporte to role-play what he’d have said to Jobs in Pogue’s place. Leo’s answer suggests that even with plenty of hindsight, he might not have had a good follow-up: “It would be hard not to laugh when he said that. Now, I’ve talked to Steve and I know that the follow-up question which I would have said is— uh, you know, I’m not sure exactly what I would have said . . .”

As Laporte goes on to say, any effort to confront Jobs would have failed, except in dramatic terms: “he would have left.”  Laporte then noted, “this is the issue that I think a lot of trade press has, and press that covers narrower fields has, and it’s certainly a problem in the beltway, with balancing access with fairness.”

Pogue put it another way: “Is it better to . . . ask the hard questions and not nail his ass to the wall on the follow-up, but bring the readers his answers, or is it best not to interview him at all, and get no answers?”

The predominant response to Pogue seems to be that anyone working for the New York Times should be held to a higher standard (see, for example, this effective if tendentious criticism).  Does that mean the trade-press approach necessarily reflects a lower standard?

I don’t think so. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when B2B interviewers are too friendly and accommodating to their subjects. But the lack of confrontation that typifies B2B interviews isn’t just a matter of maintaining a good relationship with the interview’s subject.  More often, it’s a matter of both parties sharing a common interest in and concern for their industry. There is, in these cases, a spirit not of confrontation but of what might be called critical or adversarial collaboration. Does that mean some tough questions don’t get asked? Maybe. But I’d guess that, cumulatively, collaborative interviews produce more true and helpful information than hostile ones.

I wonder, too, whether it’s fair to hold even the Times to a single high standard in these 2.0 days. You could argue that if the Times is to survive in the new-media world, it has to adopt some of the new-media ethos. It’s OK to make mistakes if, as Jeff Jarvis puts it, you make them well, and if you’re transparent about the process and are open to correction. If Pogue and the Times did make mistakes, either in his review or his interview with Jobs, I think they’ve made them well.

By the same token, Pogue’s blogging and podcasting critics, right or wrong, did their part, too, in raising the issues. Confrontation, it seems, still has its place.