Slate and Microsoft

Mike Kinsley on Slate and Microsoft.

Slate and Microsoft

Slate is published by Microsoft Corp. Some people are concerned or even alarmed at the thought of the world’s largest software company getting into the media business. Can Slate tell it straight when it is owned by Microsoft? Since we are about to ask our readers to help us finance this enterprise (see last week’s “Readme“), and since Microsoft is in the headlines these days, this may be a good moment to tell you how we see this issue.

First, as a practical matter, in the year and a halfSlate has been coming out, the company has not interfered in editorial decisions in any way. Nor has any Microsoft higher-up complained about any Slate article even after the fact.

In theory, too, the alarm about Microsoft owning media properties seems odd. Compare Microsoft with, say, Time Warner or News Corp. (Rupert Murdoch’s empire) or other big media companies. The potential conflicts of interest are far greater for a publication that is part of a traditional media company than for one owned by a software company. Time magazine bumps up against the various interests of its corporate parent many times in each issue, including every time it reviews a book or a movie. By contrast, even lately with the antitrust controversy, very little of what Slate publishes has anything to do with Microsoft’s other products and interests.

There is legitimate concern about the concentration of the media in large corporations of any sort. But the special concern about Microsoft entering the field is hard to understand. Microsoft has been founding new journalistic institutions (Slate, MSNBC, etc.)–not buying up existing ones. Thus Microsoft’s media adventures add to diversity and competition among the media, rather than reducing it. This makes the complaints of journalists in particular about Microsoft getting into the journalism business especially puzzling. A journalist who objects to a new company getting into journalism is a journalist with a secure job.

Media companies, of course, have decades of experience and (in the case of Time Warner, if not Murdoch) a reputation for integrity to protect. Microsoft, as a new kid on the block, has no journalistic reputation yet, either good or bad. But Microsoft will need to establish a reputation for integrity and hands-off management if it hopes to attract journalists and customers to its media properties. The company would be stupidly shortsighted to destroy this reputation before it is even established, in order to tilt the editorial product more in the company’s favor. And even Microsoft’s fiercest critics rarely accuse this company of being stupid or shortsighted.

Of course it may not be necessary for a corporate parent to interfere actively with the editorial content of media it owns. Employees know which side their bread is buttered on. In software companies like Microsoft, a chunk of employees’ pay is in stock options, which give employees an especially throbbing interest in the future prosperity of their employer. Does this affect journalists’ ability to treat issues touching the company with the same lofty detachment they bring to issues that don’t?

Answer: maybe. As a practical matter, once again, we at Slate think we play it pretty straight, though others inevitably will disagree. We commissioned Ralph Nader’s attack on Microsoft as soon as we heard about his campaign against the company. Later, we ran a piece defending the company. More than once, in discussions of the browser wars, we have provided links to Netscape Navigator’s download page. There are other examples, and no doubt there are counterexamples. Root around the “Compost” and decide for yourself.

In theory, as well, we as journalists have an even stronger self-interest than our corporate employer in establishingSlate’s reputation for journalistic integrity. We don’t have to resist temptation nearly as often as employees of traditional media companies. And some of those companies, by the way, also use stock as an incentive.

Now, a slight disclaimer. Despite all the completely compelling arguments offered in the preceding paragraphs, it would be silly and dishonest to insist that Slate does or can treat Microsoft just as we would if it were not our employer. (And the same is true for any journalist working for any company with varied interests.) The reality of ownership affects Slate in a couple of ways, we think.

First, we cannot actually forget that we work for Microsoft. The most we can aspire to is to imagine successfully how we would treat Microsoft if we didn’t work for it. But this is an artifice, and it is not foolproof. There is the temptation to take the company’s side, and the contrary temptation to prove one’s independence with ostentatious criticism. Since editors and writers get their ideas from their surroundings,Microsoft probably looms larger in Slate’s editorial landscape than it does in that of other magazines. On the other hand, the simplest and always tempting solution to conflict-of-interest concerns is to take a pass on some Microsoft-related topics that you would otherwise treat. Although we do the best we can–and we think our best is pretty good–it would be an amazing coincidence if the result of all these opposing temptations and self-conscious calculations was exactly the same quantity and slant of Microsoft coverage as if there was no connection.

Second, Slate will never give Microsoft the skeptical scrutiny it requires as a powerful institution in American society (any more than Time, once again, will sufficiently scrutinize Time Warner). We can come pretty close to neutral reporting and analysis of news developments in features like “Today’s Papers” and “The Week/The Spin.” At the other extreme, if we discover that Bill Gates murdered Vince Foster, or a similar megascoop, journalistic bravado will easily triumph over corporate loyalty. But in the middle ground–entrepreneurial and analytical journalism–no institution can reasonably be expected to audit itself. The standard to insist on is that the sins be of omission, not distortion. There will be no major investigations of Microsoft in Slate.

The journalism reviews dote on episodes where some newspaper runs an eight-part series about how its own ink is filled with cancer-causing chemicals, or whatnot. However, what guarantees that powerful institutions get skeptical scrutiny isn’t a lot ofstagy self-mutilation. It’s diversity of voices. You can’t trust a publication owned by Microsoft to keep an eye on Microsoft, but you can expect it to keep an eye on Condé Nast and Time Warner, and youcan reasonably expect Condé Nast and Time Warner to keep an eye on Microsoft. By creating new journalistic institutions–sometimes in competition with established ones–Microsoft is adding to the total amount of skeptical scrutiny going on.

Or at least at Slate that’s what we’re trying to do.

–Michael Kinsley