LinuxToday.com: Blowing the Whistle
My job with internet.com ended June 29th, 2001. I was given my walking papers on May 15. This is public knowledge now. What isn't public knowledge is that on May 13, I attempted, for the last time it would seem, to bring to light a problem at LinuxToday.com.
The issue was one of talkbacks--Executive Editor Kevin Reichard's talkbacks specifically. I took issue with several aliases that he appeared to be using on the public site to enter talkbacks. The commentary often dissed our competition or slammed rival community members and journalists. The important point is this: I stood against this kind of behavior. On May 13, I tried, for the last time, to get something done about it.
What aliases? Tom Dooley, George Tirebiter, Clark Addison and Will Smith, to name the more commonly used.
When? From what I can tell, between December of 1999 and May of 2001.
Where? The talkback forums on Linuxtoday.com.
A lot of you may wonder why it took so long for me to come forward. The main problem was within my character. I had faith that internet.com's editorial management would do something about Reichard's activity, once brought to light. I actually tried in December of 2000 for the first time. At that time he had only entered some 50 or so talkbacks under alias names. I felt that possibly they didn't see the problem clearly enough. By May, the number was over 100. In other words, the frequency was increasing.
I also had faith that if Reichard didn't stop, he was going to expose himself anyway. The problem was possibly this faith of mine in things going the right way when the truth gets out. I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should simply let this die. After much deliberation on my part, I've decided that it's too important an issue to leave undisturbed.
For one, a lot of readers put a great faith in the quality of the feedback on LinuxToday.com's forums. True, you can find a lot of dross in there--but it was moderated dross. There is some high quality commentary, contributed by readers and faithful community members. The site is a high-profile news site, and it attracts a lot of eyeballs. Not everyone takes everything read there as gospel, but a lot of people put faith in the commentary and expected the staff to avoid anything deceptive.
I actually wrote this portion of LinuxToday.com's talkback policy:
In general, we cast a dim view upon anything that tries to be in the slightest way, deceptive. The Linux and Open Source / Free Software movements are many things, but first and foremost among the qualities are honesty and objectivity. We may not always succeed at holding to these goals, but we strive to do it, and we appreciate your support.
For the record, I don't feel this portion of the policy was followed. That's sarcasm, for those of you who may not have had enough stimulants this morning....
I did try twice to remedy the situation. Four days after the second attempt, I was let go and told to let the issue drop by my then boss (not Kevin Reichard). The official reason for letting me go was economic, I was told. I have no reason to disbelieve this, but the timing is interesting. For the record, I respect my ex-boss; he is an honest person who did what he could. He treated me well, and I have no ill will toward internet.com employees. For the most part they were/are great people, and it saddens me to have to come forward at this point.
Marty Pitts was also let go in March of 2001 for similar economic reasons. Things here may be a bit more complicated as well. I know Marty knew about the talkback problem, and he knew I was working to get it resolved. I also know that he had issues with Reichard regarding LinuxToday's role as a news portal.
In December of 2000, Reichard and Pitts argued over story posting policy in full view on an internal editorial mailing list. Pitts felt that LinuxToday's role as a community site meant that it should link to all relevant news, wherever it might be found. Reichard came close to threatening Pitts' job if he continued to point to a lot of external content. Here are the key words from that exchange:
Marty> This gets us to the philosophy of keeping the readers inMarty> the channel at all costs. Something I strongly disagreeMarty> with.
It is our policy to keep people in the channel. The same for every other Web site in the world. Keeping people on our sites pays our bills and your salary.
If you want to give up your salary, then you can send readers to other sites. However, I would prefer -- and I think everyone else here -- would prefer to feed their families and heat their homes.
Pitts never responded to the threat about his job. When we talked about it at the time, he said that he had felt threatened, and he wanted to take the issue higher in the company for resolution.
I did respond to Reichard after he demanded proof that the Linux community existed. Proof, that is, after saying more or less that he hated to be the one to say there was no Santa, but there was no Linux community.
I ended up saying that if he chose not to believe in the community that was his prerogative. Either we were serving our readers or we weren't. As for me convincing him of the fact, I compared proving that the community existed to proving that God existed. Reichard had thrown up a straw man that VA Linux's failure as a company was proof that the community didn't exist. I took the time to explain the difference between a corporation and a community.
That discussion was one of the last ones the editorial staff had on the channel before it more or less disbanded. Monetary concerns aside, Reichard had obvious issues with just about everyone, and likely that included myself. In phone conversations he often tried to convince me that the community didn't exist. That is, when we had conversations--I rarely talked with him after about October 2000, which is suspiciously around the time that I confronted him regarding a talkback that had the word "newsforger" in it, his internet address, but not his name.
Reichard denied that the talkback was his, and when I explained that it appeared to have his internet address on it, he explained that his address was "untraceable". These issues aside, I didn't think much of it as the talkback was fairly harmless. Things took a much darker turn in December of 2000, when I accidentally happened across talkbacks by "George Tirebiter" on an editorial Reichard wrote in response to an editorial in LinuxWorld by Joe Barr.
Joe had written about the BSA's (Business Software Alliance) letter campaign and Virginia Beach. Reichard had taken exception. Here's the lead from that story:
Yesterday LinuxWorld ran an extremely irresponsible piece of Microsoft-bashing. Kevin Reichard opines that this sort of writing is bad for the Linux world, as the truth about Open Source and Linux plays much better than lies and ill-informed condemnations of others.
All advice about getting a mirror aside, the editorial offended Barr, who wrote to internet.com's editorial management and complained. Barr had reason to suspect that Reichard was acting out of personal reasons. They didn't respond, but the story did change--silently.
I remember coming across the story later in the evening, and finding the talkbacks by "George Tirebiter" to be a little more than familiar in writing style and tone. In late December, I made my first attempt to get something done about the problem. Through the proper channels, I sent the information to Kevin's boss. After some prodding, I received a message back that was something like "This is common practice in the industry."
I'm still ashamed that I didn't ask the obvious question: "By whom?". I'm not one to shoot the messenger, and especially not this one.
Common practice or not, I had a hard time with it. Talkbacks of this nature continued to appear slamming rival publications, rival journalists and even well-known community members. I began looking for work outside of internet.com at that point. I couldn't sleep and the problem was causing me no end of discomfort. I no longer wanted to be associated with LinuxToday, and for the most part that disassociation was happening without my intervention.
Those of you who wrote asking why I wasn't writing anymore now have a better answer. Writing is a creative endeavor for me, and I wasn't balanced enough to do it.
The problem, as far as I was concerned, was that my desired disassociation wasn't public knowledge. People still associated the site with me and few were aware of the issue with the talkbacks. There were other issues as well, the change in editorial policy and the censorship of talkbacks that might disagree with editorial staff.
If it had been one or two, heck even ten or so items, I would have simply looked the other way. The problem was that the behavior seemed consistent, as the talkbacks ranged from late December 1999, all the way up to May 11, 2001. I have no way of knowing whether it has even stopped now. I do know that at least one good editor remains at the site, and he's likely doing what he can.
And so here we are. I can tell you that not all journalists in the Linux community feel the same way that I do regarding this problem. Some feel that it's sort of a "you get what you pay for" situation. Who's to say that any user contributed commentary, or even web news for that matter, is accurate?
Let's examine the issue of the editorial change to Reichard's "Waiting for the Black Helicopters" Barr-bashing piece. If it had been a printed publication, we'd at least have some hard evidence that a change was executed. Web publications can make things disappear or change in a nanosecond, without notice or the slightest forensic information. Who's to believe that anyone in LinuxToday's forums are anyone they say they are for that matter? The only way you know is if you're in charge of the site itself--and even then you've got to be something close to Sherlock Holmes to make sense of it all.
The main issue comes down to one of trust. The community trusts LinuxToday.com to be a fairly honest news source. It put its trust in the talkback moderators to not delete talkbacks on a personal basis, and to not post things like the above. The community had this trust because the site gained a reputation for being that way. But there were and are no guarantees, as we're seeing here.
All that remains is "Why?"
So then, why bother to complain? Why indeed? Why not just accept this as normal? Let's all have a party with it! What's the lowest we can all stoop? No, let's not go there. I don't know about you, but I've had enough of the circus.
To not complain would mean for me to accept these things as normal. It would be a kind of commentary in and of itself, albeit a silent one.
I stand against it. I said as much in my last letter to internet.com's editorial management. We're the Linux community--and we're making a new world on the fringes of the old one. It is my hope that eventually we will all stand against things like this. In a perfect world there wouldn't be anything like it at all. In a near perfect world, I sincerely believe none of us would tolerate it. It's not either--but I'd like to see it at least heading in one of those two directions.
I believe that we've seen enough dirty tactics and, as a community, had enough of large corporations doing things like this. We, the Linux community, should be better.
Paul Ferris is a freelance writer and a Linux professional. He was a web developer and IT director for internet.com's Linux and Open Source channel for over a year and a half. He has been covering Linux and free software for over three years. In the past he's been a pizza delivery driver, draftsman, mechanical engineer, journalist and more. Today he's also a husband and a father. You can find his current writing on Nicholas Petreley's VarLinux.Org.
Information about the petition demanding answers from internet.com regarding allegations of astroturfing on LinuxToday.com.
Kevin Reichard's response to Joe Barr's article on the BSA letter campaign and Virginia Beach)
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