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.comment: On Writing About Linux

The Paradox of News

  • June 20, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

When I was very, very young, I happened to be in southern Indiana when a Lockheed Electra broke its mainspar and spun out of the sky. On board were 63 people who were perfectly healthy when the plane was one foot above the ground and an unrecognizable mass of shredded human flesh less than a yard later. It was absolutely horrifying, especially to six-year-old me.

It was covered by the newspapers and on television.

And then, as now, reporters were criticized for having covered it, even though those doing the criticizing also rushed to get their newspapers and read every detail, and turn on their teevees and stare attentively at all the pictures from the scene.

So it always has been and always will be. A substantial part of the news is breathtaking detail about things that people wish hadn't happened at all. Readers, who devour it, presume that reporters take delight in it having happened, so they could write about it, maybe win a prize, make the front page, whatever. When the Electra crashed, a local resident actually wrote the little weekly paper in the small Ohio River town of Cannelton to ask why there were never any stories about the thousands of flights every day that don't crash.

The answer was, and is, that those thousands of flights aren't news. They're very nice, and we're all glad that they reach their destinations as planned, but they're not news.

This is pretty basic. If you picked up the newspaper and the headline was "Big News! Sun Rose as Expected This Morning!" you would not read it. Certainly, the fact that the sun rose is important, essential as the sun is to life on our little planet. But a piece about the glories of the sun is of neither interest nor use to anyone. If, on the other hand, the story was "Big News Today! The Sun Didn't Rise!" you would read it, and you would soak up every detail. That's the nature of news.

This is all so obvious that it's sad that it need even be mentioned. But it does need mention, because there are people in the Linux community -- the loudest contingent -- that apparently holds the belief that the purpose of reporting is to cheerlead; that reporters should only cover good news about Linux, and that if a reporter covers bad news he is somehow in favor of the events on which he reports.

A Case in Point

Yesterday afternoon, within about an hour of each other, two stories were posted on LinuxToday. The first to appear was the good news that Red Hat Software had for the first time posted a profit. No matter your opinion of Red Hat, this is good news: it means that in even a weak economy a company based on free and open-source software can make money. This in turn might help remove the black cloud that has hovered above things Linux when viewed by the investment community. And if you don't think investment is important, ask any of the people who have been laid off recently by Linux companies. Ask them over at Eazel.

Exactly 45 minutes later, a story I wrote was posted. It dealt with some ill-will in the KDE and GNOME camps that had led leading developers to resign from each project. This was not about garden-variety flame wars, but about things having reached points where developers no longer felt welcome. The story did not take sides; in this case, especially, there are good arguments to be made for the positions taken by everybody, yet those positions are mutually exclusive. Life is like that sometimes. And it was news. In one situation, the shape of GNOME 2.0 was likely to be affected; in the other, KDE users who had grown to know and like an application called Pixie would surely wonder why it had suddenly disappeared.

Which story is more important? Actually, they both are. One brightens the future of Linux in general, while one clouds or potentially clouds the hopes of those of us who hope for the desktop success of Linux.

Which story did readers think more important? Again, it's difficult to tell, but twice as many people read about the disputes in KDE and GNOME as read about Red Hat's profits, as of six hours following the posting of the later piece. Twice as many people posted comments to the dispute story, too, though most of those were to condemn me, LinuxToday, or both, for having, in the immortal clich´┐Ż used in at least one of the talkbacks, aired the projects' dirty laundry, and for being happy the disputes took place.

First, I'm not happy the disputes took place. In the column that was to have run today, I mentioned my pleasure in a theme developed by Daniel M. Duley, known in the KDE community as Mosfet, who wrote the Pixie application and who has been performing some very attractive alpha-channel miracles. He is the longtime KDE developer at the center of that dispute, about which more in due course.

Second, it is utterly astonishing to me that people who are forever going on about "free speech" and the like, which was codified for the first time in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, would now suggest that a medium whose purpose is to cover things Linux should not cover anything inconveniently embarrassing or that casts a bad light on what they wish people would believe, as they do, about Linux. This suggests to me that these poor, real-life-less specimens are merely conduits, who devote little or no time to thought and absolutely none to independent thought -- whose next original notion will be their first. True Believers, Eric Hoffer called them. Miserable whining cowards hiding, often, behind aliases and phony email addresses, I call them, when I'm being polite. (People who pleasure themselves while gazing at a jpeg of Madonna and don't know that it's different from actually being with Madonna, which is understandable because they lack the experience from which to draw the distinction, when I'm not being polite.) Fortunately, they can usually be safely ignored -- what stock can one take in the views of those for whom no respect is possible? But sometimes they get loud enough and annoying enough that they need to be identified, characterized, and very specifically disregarded. Consider it done.

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