How Apple’s ‘Blacklist’ Manipulates the Press

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blacklist

Yes, Apple maintains a press “blacklist,” a list of people in the media who are shunned and ignored — “punished,” as it were, for “disloyalty.”

“Blacklisted” reporters, editorialists and media personalities are denied access to information, products and events.

Once you’re on the list, it’s almost impossible to get off. (I’ve been on it for more than a decade.)

Here’s what everyone needs to know about Apple’s press “blacklist.”

Blacklisting works. And it has a long history.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a wave of anticommunist Red Scare hysteria swept America. Congress “investigated” people we now call “content creators” (people in the movie, TV, journalism and book industries). In 1947, a group of 10 Hollywood writers and directors refused to testify as ordered by Congress’ investigative group, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a result, the 10 were placed on an official blacklist. They were not allowed to work and their careers were ruined.

Between the late ’40s and the late ’50s, the committee added first dozens, then hundreds, to the blacklist, eviscerating a generation of filmmakers and changing the nature of movies (and other content) through fear and intimidation, an ongoing witch hunt lead by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Someone needed only to be suspected or accused of having communist sympathies in order for their careers to be ended. As a result, some movie and TV people went to great lengths to create overtly patriotic content that strongly denounced leftists, intellectuals and communist countries, especially the Soviet Union.

Speaking of communists, the Chinese Communist Party today maintains the world’s most overt press blacklist.

The reason is that while other authoritarian governments simply jail or execute journalists who oppose the government or praise the opposition or the idea of democracy, the Chinese government tries to maintain the fiction that it’s somewhat democratic and open, while maintaining authoritarian control over the media.

So the government of China maintains a more nuanced policy: It jails some journalists and blacklists a whole lot more. Foreign journalists critical of the Chinese government (or who simply do normal reporting about it) find their visas denied.

The Chinese government heavily censors the news. And the government employs a “50-cent army” of paid astroturfers who defend the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party against attack. These propagandists also post negative opinions about the government’s political opponents, international rivals (like the United States) and pro-democracy advocates.

China is actually very public about its blacklist. The country publicizes it and shames blacklisted journalists by accusing them of taking bribes to write false stories. In some cases, the accusations are probably true. In others, they’re almost certainly false and the journalists are blacklisted for political reasons.

The government’s “transparency” about its blacklist is really a tool of intimidation. The ultimate goal is not to silence people known to be critical of the government, but to control those assumed to be objective or neutral.

And that’s the ultimate goal of any blacklist — McCarthy’s, Chinas or Apple’s: to make honest people lie.

It needs to be said, of course, that comparisons between, say, McCarthyism and Apple’s PR strategy are absurd. I make them here only to illustrate the history and purpose of blacklisting.

Apple’s ability to control public opinion is almost zero compared with political examples. And the stakes in Apple’s case are trivial compared with the plight of other blacklist victims.

However, I think it’s important for savvy media consumers to understand the sausage-making aspects of journalism. This is a hot dog everyone should be aware of.

There’s also an ethical dimension — some stories about Apple involve human rights, environmental problems and other truly serious issues that people may want to know about. And, indeed, accusations against Apple in these areas are the surest ways to get on the “blacklist.”

For the most part, however, inclusion on the Apple “blacklist” for most journalists appears to result from some combination of criticism, cynicism or coverage about specific topics — or breaking the company’s “rules” for coverage (such as live-streaming at one of its events). For example, criticizing Steve Jobs, Apple’s history and culture, or super-harshly criticizing their products will gain most journalists lifelong inclusion on the “blacklist.” Being overly speculative, writing with too much certainty about Apple rumors, or speculating about Apple’s motivations in a negative way will usually get reporters and editorialists on the list.

It’s also important to understand that Apple’s PR strategy isn’t merely a “blacklist-whitelist” binary sort of thing. It’s very nuanced. In some cases, they’ll give journalists in prominent, non-technical publications more slack.

Apple is much harsher to the technology press because these media outlets are highly influential on the mainstream press anyway, and they’re easier and safer to play games with. If you can reward the pro-Apple press and punish the anti-Apple press, the mainstream coverage will be influenced in Apple’s favor.

Apple appears to punish some news organizations by rewarding their competitors. In one case, The New York Times ran a series to expose the working conditions in factories that make Apple products. So Apple responded by giving a huge access scoop (a rare interview with CEO Tim Cook) to the paper’s archrival, The Wall Street Journal. (Allegedly.)

Another subtle incentive: Consistently pro-Apple journalists are “whitelisted,” and rewarded with access to product loaners a few days earlier than the rest.

The worst thing about Apple’s press blacklist system is that it encourages self-censorship in lower-level bloggers, writers and editors. A young person trying to make a career in technology journalism will benefit from better access to Apple if they’re overtly pro-Apple in their coverage and avoid negative coverage.

Better access will give them better stories, and their careers will benefit.

Of course, this idea can only be taken so far.

The truth is that Apple is highly secretive anyway.

The difference between what a “whitelisted” and a “blacklisted” person learns is slight. Those of us on the “blacklist” can read what the “whitelisted” people write. Sure, we don’t get early review units or exclusive quotes from executives. We don’t get to boost our access cred with post-announcement product area selfies. But eventually everybody has the same information.

You should also know that most “whitelisted” journalists aren’t unethical or compromised. Most got there because they were genuinely pro-Apple in their coverage — or, at least, never had occasion to harshly criticize — not because of strategic lying or self-censorship.

One journalist last year claimed that Apple’s “blacklist” “includes any media outlet that posts anything even remotely negative or heaven help you, a rumor.” But this is simply not true. Many who criticize some Apple products but praise others are not placed on the list, as long as they avoid the hot-button topics (human rights, environment, company people or culture). I personally know very fair journalists who criticize Apple or who are publicly open-minded about the costs and benefits of Apple versus Android phones, for example, and who are still invited to Apple events.

Also: The existence of Apple’s “blacklist” should not add to your skepticism about media and reporting. It should merely give you a better understanding about Apple and about what you’re reading. The technology press is far more independent and ethical than people generally give it credit for.

Yes, Apple has a “blacklist.” And, yes, you should know about it so you can be a better-informed media “consumer” and consumer electronics customer.

Ultimately, it’s not that big of a deal. In fact, most companies maintain some elements of a blacklist. Companies exist on a spectrum in the degree to which they reward or punish coverage with the provision or withholding of access to people, products and events.

In technology, I would rank Apple the worst exploiter of a blacklist mentality and Google the best.

If you criticize Apple harshly, the company will never so much as return your e-mails for the rest of your career. But if you criticize Google harshly, and the next day request a Nexus 5 review unit, they’ll cheerfully overnight it to you like you never said anything.

In any event, I see Apple’s “blacklist” in the context of that company’s secretive, authoritarian, controlling culture — and it’s ironically these same cultural attributes that enable Apple to make such  great products. You don’t execute on design, manufacturing and distribution like Apple does without being monstrously controlling.

The severity of the “blacklist” and the high quality of, say, the iPad Air’s industrial design, are all part of the same authoritarian mindset.

If I wasn’t on Apple’s “blacklist” already, this post would surely get me on it. It’s totally worth it.

(Photo courtesy of AFP and Phys.org)