Ben Charny and Shoddy Jouralism

Note: While the article below remains accurate to the best of my knowledge, I wrote it when I was much younger. The personal nature of my criticism does not sit well with me anymore. I do not believe in deleting content, with rare exceptions, so I am keeping this article up. That said, I hope neither Ben nor myself will be judged for what we wrote so long ago.
— Alan, March 2021

Catching up on some of my favorite blogs today, I was surprised to see two of the three blogging superstars I follow lambast the same journalist for different articles within hours of each other.

The hapless scribbler is Ben Charny.  First, John Gruber of the wildly popular blog Daring Fireball writes a post debunking Charny's "ill-informed" article on the lack of Flash support in the iPhone.  Gruber calls it "flat-out wrong." It is.  Charny wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Several years ago, Adobe dropped support for Apple’s Macintosh computers and then introduced other software products that were only compatible with Microsoft Corp.  software.

That statement is complete fabrication.  Adobe just released new versions of Photoshop and other of their applications for Mac less than a year ago, and they never took a break, either. 

The article is riddled with similarly egregious mistakes.

Second, Joel Spolsky, of the popular blog Joel on Software, reports that the same Ben Charny interviewed him about Microsoft's recent distribution of certain protocols, but completely misrepresented Joel (and very much exaggerated the benefits of Microsoft's actions) in the resulting article.  In fact, Spolsky's own software was mistakenly called "failed." How's that for a nice read! Joel quotes and responds to it:

"For want of a few key details from Microsoft Corp.  (MSFT), Joel Spolsky tried but failed more than 10 years ago to make a better version of Microsoft's remote office desktop-computer feature." Not true.  Fog Creek Copilot was developed less than three years ago and has been under continous development since then.  It has been a profitable product and we're still developing new versions.

So was just it a bad day for the intrepid Ben Charny? Were too many deadlines piling up? Perhaps, but this wasn't a one-time slip, as I discovered.  In the past, others including MacDailyNews criticized Charny for similar bad reporting, in which Charny confused viruses with Trojans.  Trojan horses, like viruses, are malicious software, but they do not spread from computer to computer.  Trojans are extremely simple to write, but will only affect those who directly receive the program; they have no means of distribution.  Charny's misrepresentation of the situation suggested there was a Mac virus, which was not the case.

Maybe it's time to put down the pen, Ben.

UPDATE (August 10, 2009): Ben Charny strikes again! On July 29, 2009, Ben wrote for the Wall Street Journal, "Apple plans to attend [CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, put on by CEA]'s 2010 version, marking the first time in memory the Cupertino, Calif., consumer-electronics giant will be there."  If the sentence were only poorly written, we would not have a problem, but it's also a lie.  After a stinging and immediate round of criticism from Engadget, MacWorld, and even HowStuffWorks -- whose Jonathan Strickland notes, "Just make sure your critical thinking cap is on before you turn on your Web browser, okay?" -- the original post on WSJ was revised to read a lot more speculatively.  (Showcasing their dedication to journalistic integrity, Charny and/or the WSJ mix in their edits with the original text, making it impossible for readers to see what has been changed; and furthermore, there is new text at the top which is marked as an update, dishonestly implying the rest is unchanged.)  As Engadget's Ryan Block pointed out -- check out the illustration on his post! -- revealed, Charny's inspiration was a dinner with CEA executive Gary Shapiro, of which we have the transcript and indicates no more than Shapiro's wish to hear back from Apple -- a far cry indeed from Apple's plans.  There is no shortage of trade shows which would love to have Jobs give a keynote at their event, and for CES to be counted among them is hardly news, much less an indication of Job's intentions.

The part of this mini-fiasco that surprised me so much wasn't Ben's sloppy reporting or even the way his speculation was reported as an unsourced fact, but rather the way that Charny was apparently completely ignorant about the way Apple rumors work.  The company is famously secretive, and "leaks" are given little no credence unless they come from a source with an accurate track record.  Charny had no legitimate source, and so his article was immediately suspect.  The level of naïvité involved here for a seasoned journalist is almost beyond belief.  How does Charny still have a job, never mind one at Dow Jones?

February 21st, 2008. (Updated: March 01, 2021 at 12:00pm.)
Alan Hogan (@alanhogan_com).  Contact · About