Let's start with Microsoft. Remember when they asked us to pull some reader posts? That was the work of a few people in an obscure legal department, not a case of a leering, drooling Bill Gates calling a cowering subordinate and screaming, "Slashdot sucks! Kill Slashdot, kill, kill, kill!" And obviously not everyone at Microsoft agreed that it was a good idea to keep the matter alive, because it has since been allowed to die quietly. (We haven't written anything further on the subject because there has been nothing to say. No news is good news.)
There is no giant, singleminded conspiracy at Microsoft, just thousands of people trying to get through the day. This is how things really work at any large company. Good decisions get made and so do bad ones. Projects get started. Some of them work out and some of them don't. Orders issued from the top sometimes get carried out effectively and efficiently, and sometimes they don't. I often suspect that some of the worst software (and the worst Web sites) I see are so crappy because the workers actually putting them together are unenthusiastic about management's plans and are either consciously or subconsciously dragging their feet -- or, in this case, their coding fingers. I'm not implying any employee conspiracy, either; these tend to be individual decisions that, collectively, may look like a consipracy to an outsider (or a boss) when there really isn't one.
Now let's take a look at one of Slashdot readers' favorits media whipping boys: ZDNet, which is now part of CNET. If you look closely, you'll see that ZD is no more organized than rush hour traffic in Paris. There are dozens of publications listed on the ZD main page. Some of them deal with Linux all day long, some are pure Windows, others concern themselves with consumer electronics and are only interested in things like camcorders or stereo gear. Jesse Berst is often treated as if he is the boss of this whole thing. He's not. He is the front man for one little piece of it called AnchorDesk . Berst has nothing to do with PC Magazine or Yahoo! Internet Life or GameSpot , all of which are also part of ZDNet.
The people who write for all these separate publications never meet. Most of them don't even know each other. They have no idea what ads are going to run where, so even if they wanted to pander to a particular advertiser they'd have trouble doing it effectively. The guiding rule at a big media mill like ZD or CNET is to have usable copy to fill all the pages every day, and they have a lot of pages to fill. Editors at these places are help-short and constantly looking for new freelance and staff writers. They don't have time to sit there and say, "Oh my, we need more stories today that make Microsoft look good and Linux look bad."
Offline media workers are similarly rushed. In many publishing companies (including Andover.net) close contact between editorial-side employees and and business-side employees is discouraged. There are journalistic organizations that act as watchdogs to help keep editorial content free from business or outside influence. These groups avidly publish instances of improper behavior. Now and then, their work gets direct results, but more often the influence is subtle; a media outlet that gains a reputation among journalists for altering stories or trying to taint them to satisfy advertisers has trouble recruiting and retaining high-end writers, and almost always sets itself on a downward quality spiral.
Remember, the shortage of competent writers and editors, especially in tech-oriented fields, is almost as acute as the shortage of competent programmers. This has not always been so, and may not always be so, but right now there is no excuse for a tech media writer to accept conspiracy-level censoring from a publisher.
Now we'll talk about the biggest and most perfidious influence I believe does exist throughout media everywhere, even though it is not a conspiracy per se: denial of access.
Imagine a celebrity besieged by reporters. Imagine that you're the press agent for that celebrity. Your client has one interview time slot open this week. You have a dozen writers begging for that interview, all of whom have audiences of approximately equal size. One of those writers has always been "nice" to your client, six of them have been (in your opinion) fair but not necessarily nice, and five of them have written primarily negative stories about him or her.
Which writer gets the interview?
Twenty years ago there were hardly any celebrities in the computer industry. Even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were thrilled to speak openly, off the cuff, to reporters from magazines that had only a few thousand or even a few hundred subscribers. Now the people at the top of the computer business tend to be as infected with celeb-itis as movie stars and top-end politicians, and as cautious about interviews as any other group of celebrities. It has gotten to the point where interviews with computer industry honchos are about as informative as Jay Leno's interviews with actors and acresses pushing their upcoming movies.
Worse, in many cases the hardware or software itself is the celebrity in question. A tech-news writer, like a political writer, is under a certain amount of pressure to break news ahead of his or her competitors. Getting pre-release access to new products can make or break careers in this field. And who gets the most "sneak peeks" at new stuff coming out of Redmond or Cupertino or wherever? Writers who are A) generally negative; B) generally fair and unbiased; C) usually full of "Golly! Gee Whiz!" praise for any new piece of hardware or software that falls into their hands?
Pretend, for a moment, that you're a PR person for Apple. You have only 20 demo/review units of the new G21, equipped with GNU/Hurd-based MacOS 40.2 and a 3.6 GHz Intelorola available. Of the 100+ reasonably well-known computer journalists who have requested pre-release units to review, which ones will you choose? If you don't select the Mac-boostingest people in that whole crowd, then you're not a good PR person.
Computer trade journalists know that this is how the game is played. I used Apple as an example, on purpose, because they have the worst reputation among computer journalists for playing the "If you want to see our latest stuff you'd better be nice to us" game. According to posts to some of the private online journalists' e-mail lists I'm on, Microsoft is evenhanded compared to Apple, and other companies vary widely in the level of journalistic favoritism they expect to have shown toward them in return for easy access to their latest products -- and easy interview access to their key people.
But none of this is a conspiracy. It's quite Randian, really, in that a whole lot of individuals are performing in ways they perceive to be in accordance with their own (or corporate) best interests. No one can plausibly argue that computer manufacturers or distributors have any legal obligation to hand out review products in an evenhanded manner. It's a fact of life that Tuxtops or Corel are going to send Slashdot editors their products before they throw demo units at Windows Magazine , just as Microsoft is going to display the exact opposite bias.
I have questioned the whole idea of using free, manufacturer-supplied review units more than once, even those that are short-term loaners instead of "keepers." I believe there's temptation on the corporate side to make sure review units are just a little better-tested than those sold to the general public. But while reviewers who stick to buying products anonymously through normal channels may give slightly more honest reviews than those who rely on company-supplied units, they will never get anything to review before it is released, so an ethically pure reviewer will often be left far behind those who are a little more (shall we say) flexible. This is especially true of magazine writers whose deadlines may be weeks or months before publication date. I have come to accept the incestuous relationship between computer product reviewers and the people who supply those products as a fact of life. I don't necessarily like this way of doing business (even when *I* do it), but I don't think it's part of any grand conspiracy to dupe the public.
Bigger companies also have a tendency to enclose "reviewer guides" with demo products to make sure reporters know all of the product's good points so that they can (hopefully) cover them in their articles. Indeed, you can just about write a credible-looking, if uncritical, "review" from most of these guides without ever actually testing the product yourself. I regard this as the worst thing that can happen, the equivalent of writing a "news" story about a politician directly from his or her press kit. And stories that are nothing but rewritten PR pieces appear every day in all kinds of media, about all kinds of topics. The sad secret of PR-rewriting is that it can be a bonanza for a free-lancer. Take (for example) a press release about a potential new cure for [insert disease here] from researchers at [insert university here]. A hungry freelancer can easily reword the statements in that press release to produce at least three or four stories for different media, ranging from the medical trade press to regional general-interest publications. Even at low-end freelance rates, a rapid typist who does this can crank out $1000 worth of stories in a single morning. Do this six or eight days a month, and you have a nice little income to support you, and still have most of your time free to work on your (inevitable) novel, go sailing or whatever else strikes your fancy. Again, no conspiracy, just individual greed. Editors are supposed to detect and prevent this sort of thing, but they are generally overworked and have "news holes" to fill, so lazy journalism often slips by their eyes -- and not only from freelancers. In-house writers, especially on small and understaffed publications, face the same temptation to cut corners -- and often yield to it.
And now, on to the great (gasp!) Slashdot editorial conspiracy. Real life around here is that this site is run, day to day, by about six people, all of whom are independent to the point of uncontrollability. We share many common biases, and CmdrTaco sets the overall tone of the site, but that's it. One editor might post a story another wouldn't. Jon Katz writes what Jon Katz feels like writing. Hemos is ... Hemos, and also determines which books whould be reviewed, and by whom. Timothy picks stories and SlashBack material on his own, Cliff chooses "Ask Slashdot" material, and Emmett decides what stories he should cover, all by himself. Sure, we kick stuff around and ask each other for advice, and CmdrTaco will sometimes issue general directives about kinds of stories he'd like to see more often and other kinds he'd like to see less often, and these directives get followed to a certain extent, but when you come right down to it the ruling principle around here is "Chaos is Better Than Order."
No human-run organization operates with Borg-like singlemindedness. People are incapable of that kind of groupthink. Not even the old Soviet Union achieved it. This is why I am leery of so many of the conspiracy theories touted here and elsewhere. Face it: once you get behind their public masks, Microsoft, "the mainstream media," the U.S. Department of Justice, and many of our other favorite alleged conspirators are no more organized than Slashdot, and are no more capable than we are of sustaining any kind of secret agenda for any length of time -- at least not without getting caught.