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The NYT, Yesterday's News, and Plausible Deniability

By - November 18, 2003

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In this post on his blog, Dan Gillmor of the SJMN points to the contradiction between “company executives and others” who claimed MSFT approached Google about a buyout (see my earlier post and comments here) and Gates’ very clear denial of same earlier this week. Dan points out that Gates is the CEO of a public company, so he can’t very well lie about something so material to his stock price. Because of this he implies that Google insiders – such as the VCs who backed the company – are the likely sources of the story.

I’m not so sure. The sourcing in the Times piece seems intentionally non-specific:

“According to company executives and others briefed on the discussions, Microsoft – desperate to capture a slice of the popular and ad-generating search business – approached Google within the last two months to discuss options, including the possibility of a takeover.”

Which company does “company executives” modify, MSFT – which is closer to the sourcing, or Google? Who knows?! My guess is the Times kept it vague on purpose, to protect its sources. (more via link below)

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Gillmor points out that this kind of press manipulation – where folks float trial balloons to pump a stock, or hype a product, or in this case, to burnish Google’s pre-IPO valuation or test an acquisition via the press – is quite common in the Valley. I’d add that the practice is far more widespread in DC, where they ought to change the name of the New York Times to “Senior Administration Officials’ Trial Balloon Daily”. But I’m not sure I see the same smoke Dan does.

Taking a page from DC, what Gates probably has is plausible deniability. Here’s one scenario: Acting on their own, his “people” – say senior execs from MSN on a fishing expedition – contacted folks at Google, Kleiner, Sequoia, or all three, and most likely, folks on the Google side took a meeting. It’d be irresponsible not to. The meetings were inconclusive, and Gates was never told about them. Even if there was not a meeting, MSFT officials know they could test Google’s openess to an acquisition simply by leaking an imaginary meeting to the press (or, vice versa – Google insiders could have tested MSFT’s openess the same way). In any case, someone (could have been either side or both) tipped the Times, and the story got out. Then Gates was asked by a reporter if he was in talks with Google, and he denied it because his people either never told him about it, or, if he asked them, denied to him they ever discussed acquisition. Believe me, fudging the truth to the CEO – particularly if it covers your ass – is a widespread practice in every company. I imagine it’s reached epic proportions at a behemoth like MSFT.

The more troubling issue is whether the tipster(s) – who had their own interests at heart, as do all tipsters – “tricked” the Times into doing a story that was mostly air. But it’s only troubling in that it points to the Times’ possible lack of judgment about sources, rather than the sources themselves. Should, as Gillmor suggests, the Times call out the lie? That’d be great, I’d love to see that happen – with all sorts of stories. I’ve found the Times, and most news organizations, extremely short on institutional memory. It’d be a great service to readers if there was some way to institutionalize notation of earlier stories that have been contradicted by new facts (they’d have to print a new edition of the Times every so often just on the topic of the Bush administration). But it’s simply not characteristic of newspapers, which still live in the world of RIGHT NOW, where RIGHT NOW is understood to be the point at which type hits paper. Yesterday’s news, is, well, yesterday’s news. (It is quite typical of blogs, I’d add, to update when new info comes to light). Perhaps this is a feature that Times Digital could take up.

In the end, whatever Google and MSFT do is a story now, even if what they’re doing is using the press to communicate. I am sure the Times had credible sources claiming the acquisition talks happened. I’m equally sure that what’s in all parties best interests is often not the Truth. Like Dan, I wish we’d get closer to it than we currently do via the mainstream press, but also like Dan, I believe that here in the blogosphere, for those of us who care enough, we can get pretty darn close ourselves.

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