Fair Enough

Remember Bill Gates’s interview with Newsweek’s Steven Levy earlier this month? The one where Gates said, “Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine.”

Most of my criticism regarding this interview was, rightfully, directed at Gates. But I also wrote this, regarding Levy:

Gates’s claim about Mac OS X security is simply false. Flabbergastingly false. It’s irritating that Levy didn’t press him on this point, to ask for a few examples. …

Most of you reading Daring Fireball know these are silly statements that are obviously false. But what is the typical Newsweek reader to think of them — especially given that they stand unchallenged by Levy?

Levy wrote about this on his weblog a few days later, writing:

I have found that when one has limited time in an interview with someone like Bill Gates (not that there’s many like him), one’s time is better spent drawing out the genuinely interesting things that person has to say as opposed to engaging in lengthy debates on technical issues that almost certainly won’t be resolved on the spot. (That doesn’t mean I won’t repeat a question or push a point when I want to hear more on a certain issue, or I feel that persisting will be beneficial to the interview.) The interview was to focus on Vista, and I had some specific areas involving Gates’s thoughts and involvement in that OS (and the next!) that I hoped to cover. …

Gruber professes to worry about “the typical Newsweek reader” being misled by Gates’s claims. Spare me. I think that Newsweek’s online readers are smart enough to understand that Bill Gates is a passionate partisan of Microsoft, and to assess his comments on the competition in that spirit.

I linked to his weblog post, quoted the above, and added “Fair enough.”

A bunch of DF readers emailed me after that, more or less all saying the same thing: That I’d let Levy off the hook too easily, that what he wrote was certainly not “fair enough”.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I agree.1

The reason people read magazines like Newsweek is that they trust that writers like Levy are knowledgable experts who are working to present the truth. Levy is an expert, and he’s been one of my favorite writers since his days as a Macworld columnist in the early ’90s. But in this case, I think he’s wrong.

I do agree with Levy that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to engage a busy interview subject such as Gates “in lengthy debates on technical issues that almost certainly won’t be resolved on the spot”. But a lengthy debate wouldn’t have been necessary in this case. A simple, “I haven’t heard of any such exploits — what’s your source for that?” would have sufficed.

Here’s the key: What Gates claimed was not subjective. If he had simply said, say, “Vista is way more secure than Mac OS X,” that would be subjective. Reasonable people could reasonably disagree with that, but I think it would have been perfectly fair for Levy to let it stand uncontested in the interview.

Or take Steve Jobs’s repeated claims that the iPhone is “five years ahead” of anyone else in the smartphone market. That’s clearly debatable, but also just as clearly subjective. My guess is that Jobs is wrong — that a Windows Mobile or BlackBerry phone from 2012 is probably going to be better than an iPhone from 2007 — but there’s no way to prove that now, and it’s hard to see how quoting Jobs’s claim without disputing it would create any confusion regarding Apple’s competitors.

But what Gates said about Mac OS X security was objectively false. It wasn’t his opinion, and it wasn’t an exaggeration of something that was more or less true. It was flat-out false.

Sure, some of Newsweek’s online readers2 saw through this, but my guess is that the only ones who did were those who were already at least vaguely informed about the general state of Mac OS X security, and I think that’s a very small minority of Levy’s readers. I think most readers assume that if it were false, then Levy would have called him on it — and so conversely, Levy’s silence means it must be true, or at least arguably true.

That Gates is a “passionate partisan” doesn’t grant him a license to say whatever he wants, truth be damned, about his competition. Clearly there’s some line in the sand that Gates couldn’t cross, some sort of untrue statement that would have demanded a “What’s your source for that?” response. I’m sticking with my original assessment that Gates’s “Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your [Mac] can be taken over totally” remark was over that line.

  1. And I thank all of you who emailed me about this; I get far more complimentary emails than critical ones, but the critical ones are always welcome and appreciated. ↩︎

  2. Levy’s interview with Gates was only published online, not in Newsweek’s print edition. Update: The interview did appear in at least some print editions of Newsweek in Europe, however. ↩︎