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Modern Journalism (was: All about Bernstein)
I've never met either Dan Bernstein or Peter Cassidy, but this raises an
issue of slight relevance to the themes of this list, at least the nexus of
publicity and journalism issues. You folks may have different views of this
trend toward journalistic puff pieces. As crypto issues reach public
visibility, and as things like the SSL breakage get reported, and as
digital money efforts reach fruition, I expect a lot more journalistic
Sadly, I also expect most of the articles to be in the vein of the many
repetitive articles about Phil Zimmermann.
"The Soul of a New Journalist" meets "Manufacturing Drama" (apologies to
Kidder and Chomsky).
At 10:56 AM 8/25/95, Peter F Cassidy wrote:
>I'm the guy who authored an upcoming piece about Bernstein's law suit
>with the state department for WIRED. WIRED loves the piece but, in the
>style of popular mags, wants more personal stuff on Bernstein, who is
>super articulate about the science and law of crypto but super shy about
>his heroic self. (Guy wouldn't even disclose his age! Had to threaten to
>throw myself in front of a bus to get him to tell me he's from Long
>Island!) Editor thinks guy comes across as a ghost, not surpisingly. . .
>One fellow from the list, following up an appeal I made here for Friends
>of Bernstein to call me and tell me about the litigant's best qualities,
>I'd appreciate greatly hearing from again. He called when I'd pretty much
>passed deadline for manuscript delivery. I'm calling Dan again, but after
>one trip to Delphi, I dunno if the responses from the Oracle will be any
We need to "Just say No!" to journalists asking for "more personal details"
to spice up their stories. No offense meant to Peter, who is apparently
just responding to editorial pressures, but this "personal journalism" is
getting tiresome. (Needless to say, "in my opinion." Your mileage may
I no longer read the many puff pieces on Phil Zimmermann, for example, as
they all are seemingly in the same format: huge closeup photos of Phil's
face, crap about his peace activist days, personal anecdotes about his
battles with RSADSI, speculations about his possible indictment, etc. Utter
journalistic bullshit, Oprah style. I have expect Stone Philips to attach
an Estes rocket engine to Phil to give the story more pizazz.
Instead of good "science reporting," we get "personality pieces." Instead
of explanations of crypto, of PGP, of the many important (and complicated!)
issues involving identity, key signing, "nymity," digital money, and the
implications of crypto anarchy, we get "People" magazine.
"In the next issue, computer hackers reveal the secrets of their special diets."
Granted, many people prefer personality stories. Fits with short attention
spans, with only the most casual interest in the subject. If you've never
heard of a prime number before, all you can get out of a story is where Dan
Bernstein grew up and why he became a scientist.
On a personal note, I provided almost no personal details to Steven Levy,
for a book he's reported to be writing. I think he'll confirm this, if he's
still reading this list. When he did the "Wired" piece a couple of years
ago (cover story on "Crypto Rebels," issue #2, or "1.2"), the few personal
details which crept in about us were (at least in my case) nearly the only
such details provided.
I kidded (not kiddered) Levy about the focus on "personalities" in modern
books on high tech and science, and asked him not to do the same with me.
There were three books out at that time (late 1992) on "complexity" and/or
"artificial life": Levy's "Artificial Life," Mitchell Waldrop's
"Complexity," and one by Lewin (sp?), which I have someplace but can't find
right now. All were remarkably similar, with this as a typical personality
(opened at random)
"When Langton finally made it to the University of Arizona campus in Tucson
in the fall of 1976, he was able to hobble around with the aid of a cane,
although there were still more operations to come on his knee and right
(Waldrop, p. 211)
And so on, ad nauseum. Chris Langton, a very fine fellow whom I met at the
first Artificial Life conference, back in 1987 (before it got so trendy, so
high tech chic), has been "profiled" in dozens of books, ad nauseum. Like
Zimmermann, his childhood and exploits with hang gliders have been told
over and over again, often substituting for solid explanations of the
I haven't seen Cassidy's story, of course, nor have I seen Levy's book
(forthcoming, I think), so perhaps they have moved away from the
personality profile approach. Editors may demand more personality stuff,
but we should just say No. (Or not get interviewed, which is fine. I've
turned down three interviews in the last year, mostly because I couldn't
say what would be gained. Too many damned magazines anyway! What's the
point of being the "freak of the week"--to use Dave Mandl's term--in some
obscure issue of "Access" or "Spin" or "Raygun," when the issues are just
skimmed by the Generation Xers to whom they are targetted?
A wonderful, wonderful book which--I think--set the stage for modern
personality profile journalism, at least in high tech, was Tracy Kidder's
"The Soul of a New Machine." It came out in 1981 and was a best-seller and
award-winner, recounting in great detail the development of the Data
General answer to the VAX. Wonderful stuff about "shootouts at HoJos,"
about how "if you succeed you get to do it again," and how "Wests hire
Wests." The personal stuff was fascinating, and lent an air of a group
biography to the book. Highly recommended.
I think this has become one of the main models for modern high tech
journalists to emulate. However, few have the flair that Kidder had (Levy
does, in my opinion), and many misapply the Kidder model to stories that
basically don't have the drama that the Kidder story did. For example,
artificial life is interesting stuff, but it's hard to get any high stakes
drama out of it, except by "manufacturing drama" (to borrow from Chomsky).
John Markoff, another writer whom I respect a great deal, is doing a
screenplay (or story treatment, so I have heard) about the Mitnick affair.
Lots of Hollywood stuff is already there: Shimomura, Mitnick, high tech war
rooms tracking Mitnick's movements, a raid by the authorities, even a
Nevada hooker who has it in for Shimomura (read the personality piece by
Katie Hafner, Markoff's wife (I think), in a recent issue of "Esquire"). If
he hits the big time, even more so than he's already hit, I expect even
more journalists and writers will be sniffing around. "Cypherpunks--The
The modern crypto issue has some real drama, of course, but I'm not sure I
want to read several pages on Dorothy Denning's childhood, or why Stu Baker
had to miss Woodstock. I hope Levy is not just Kiddering.
Anyway, enough of my rant on journalism today. I mean no offense to
journalists, who are probably just doing their job. But publicity can be
seductive, and sometimes it's better to just take a Zen approach of
avoiding the empty furor.
--Tim May, who lives in "Digital Walden," 90 miles south of San Francisco,
and who thus finds it easy to turn down requests for interviews in SF.
Timothy C. May | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money,
[email protected] 408-728-0152 | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
Corralitos, CA | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
Higher Power: 2^756839 | black markets, collapse of governments.
"National borders are just speed bumps on the information superhighway."