Joel Spolsky is Wrong Again

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Joel Spolsky is wrong. He is talking about accepting products for review.

First, he misrepresents Scoble. To "prove" Scoble's logical argument is wrong, Spolsky compares it to something which is by definition unethical, because it is illegal. If it was not illegal, it is debatable whether or not it would be unethical at all. Scoble was assuming in his argument that this act was not immoral-by-law, thereby implicitly invalidating Spolsky's comparison. By setting up this false comparison, Spolsky is really committing the begging-the-question fallacy.

Second, frankly, neither what Scoble is doing, nor what Edelman is doing, is unethical, by any objective standard. You may think it is unethical according to your view of journalism. But this is part of the problem of the New Journalism World Order. I'll explain.

In the Dark Times, such standards were debated by editors and publishers and reporters and, sometimes, lawyers, and each publication or company came up with its own set of ethical standards. Some accepted any products. Some did so only with full disclosure. Some accepted none at all. None of these was objectively right or wrong, ethically speaking. A reasonable case can be made for each.

And let's be more frank: none of these decisions really had anything to do with ethics, directly. They had to do with business. If you are Consumer Reports and nothing matters more than the public perception of you as an objective researcher and reviewer of products, then that's a very different thing than a journal devoted to Microsoft Windows that gets free copies of XP.

It's not ethics. It's just business. Scoble makes a business decision to take it and disclose it. If that does not diminish his credibility, then he made the right decision.

And in this New Journalism World Order, there are, usually, no longer any editors or publishers or reporters beyond the guy in pajamas himself, and certainly no lawyers. So he makes up his own rules. And you may disagree with those rules, but your disagreement does not constitute a breach of ethics on his part.

There are, sometimes, ethical considerations, but merely accepting the product is not one of them. Doing so only raises the potential for other ethical concerns, such as whether you will be honest with your readers about how you got the product. If you took it for free and gave it a glowing review and didn't tell anyone you took it for free ... it's hard to see how that can be justified. But I'm open to you trying, if you care to. But the point is that it is not the taking of the product that is unethical.

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