‘Pitch me, baby!’ or: David Pogue’s ego blocks our view of a much deeper, much scarier cultural problem.
From the archives: July 2011. The last of today’s batch. My contempt for gadgetbloggers (also ‘Apple pundits’) is limitless, as you can guess. I used to love venting my spleen like this. Now I tend to feel bad about it, though obviously not bad enough to keep this to myself. –wa.
David Pogue, a freelance gadget columnist best known for his work at the NYTimes, recently spoke (for pay) to an audience of PR professionals. The talk was entitled ‘Pitch Me, Baby.’ Last week the NYTimes ombudsman described Pogue exhorting the publicity men to suggest column material to him:
In the presentation, Pogue jumps out of the gate with a Power Point page inviting the audience to “Pitch me, Baby!”” The presentation goes on to offer do’s and don’ts and emphasizes his own close reliance on pitches that come his way from professional public relations people.
On a later slide, he displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people. Pogue explains that, as a reviewer of new gadgets, there is no comprehensive database he can rely on to learn about new stuff. Hence he relies on companies and their hired pitchmen to tell him about new products.
Pogue’s basic advice boils down to two imperatives: 1) “Save me time,” and 2) “Don’t be a robot.” This means that public relations people should tailor the pitch to its audience (avoid spamming, in particular) and avoid jargon and other extraneous matter.
This strikes me as a violation of journalistic ethics, not to mention good taste. The NYT agreed; Pogue has been forced to curb his appearances at such little get-togethers. But I don’t care at all about that aspect of the article; my disgust at Pogue’s behaviour isn’t new, nor is it unique; nor is he different in that regard from, say, Judith Miller pawning off Cheney/Rove PR as reportage. We don’t use the term ‘corporate media’ for nothing.
The deeper issue, which doesn’t seem to be getting talked about this week, is this:
Pogue’s job consists of advocating for the business interests of large corporations. That’s it. Like so many other ‘tech columnists,’ he masquerades as an advocate for better living with/through technology, but it’s easy to see that he’s always been a paid shill, nothing more: he’s only capable of talking about technology on a corporate PR timeline, within a logic of consumption rather than creation. He’s an advertiser for The New (and Expensive).
If Pogue mattered, he’d be writing about amazing! new! corporate! technology! with an eye toward an actual alternative: i.e. instead of saying ‘Should we buy the new iPhone or the new “iPhone-killer?”‘ a serious critic would ask, ‘Should we buy this new tech at all?’
A simple thought experiment: if you’ve bought a new computer in the last five years, why did you do so? If you’re a grownup, chances are you didn’t do it in order to play the latest video games. So ask yourself: what does your new computer enable you to do that your last computer didn’t? If your last computer was less than four years old, the answer is probably nothing.
My first iPhone altered the way I traveled (thank you location-aware computing) and used email (thank you 3G data service). My new one lets me shoot video, take better pictures, and run the old apps faster. I can imagine needing to replace it when it breaks, but what in the world could I possibly want from a ‘better’ phone?
Pogue and his fellow tech writers would answer by listing the features of next-gen phones. But ‘Why should I buy this phone?’ isn’t a question about a phone, it’s a question about me; and Pogue and his ilk should know it. Their defense is always the same: Well, you don’t have to buy what we recommend. And that’s true, of course. But these idiots then turn around and write about ‘tech’ from the perspective of collectors, ‘early adopters,’ fetishists. And they orient the culture toward these perverse logics.
Pogue isn’t a commentator on the ‘gadget industry,’ he’s part of it. He’s a servant of his corporate masters, who provide him with free shit in exchange for free publicity. But in his capacity as an NYTimes columnist, he’s presented as something else: a servant of his readers.
The only thing he creates in this world is a misperception of the need to buy new things.
So no, David Pogue’s recent bout of new-money tackiness isn’t a ‘journalism story.’ It’s not a ‘tech industry story.’ A paid advertiser got spanked by his bosses, who rely on paid advertising for their livelihoods. So what.
The actual story is that at this point, we can’t imagine ‘modern life’ without people like David Pogue. We are fucked.