“I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin.

"How was some guy in a basement who happens to have an obsessive interest in your subject going to bust into your peer group and start shooting up your journalism in a way that raises doubts about you and your magazine? Never going to happen... in 1989."

10 Mar 2014 2:46 pm 25 Comments

Students of cultural lag in American professional life should find their way to Felix Salmon’s latest post on the Newsweek cover story that went awry. There they will find — these students of cultural lag — a wonderful example of accomplished journalists living in a vanished world that they insist is quite present.

The Newsweek story, by Leah McGrath Goodman, tried to solve one of the mysteries surrounding bitcoin, the digital currency that some geeks follow with a passion. (Why such interest in bitcoin? Chris Dixon explains his.) Newsweek claimed to have located the founder of bitcoin living a modest life in California. “The reclusive inventor of the troubled virtual currency has been hiding in plain sight,” the teaser said. But many people online thought the case implausible. Then the guy Newsweek discovered, Dorian Nakamoto, told the AP he was not the inventor of bitcoin. Since then it’s been a brutal time for Newsweek and Goodman, as the best and the worst of online forensics are practiced upon them.

Felix Salmon already wrote a very good post on this controversy, March 7th. His conclusion:

…The responsible thing to do, from Newsweek’s perspective, would have been to present a thesis, rather than a fact. For instance, when Ted Nelson attempted to reveal Satoshi’s identity last May, he put together a video where he put forward a theory which he said was “consistent, plausible, and, I believe, compelling”. He then took a step back, and let the bitcoin community more generally come to their own conclusions about whether or not to believe him; in the end, they (generally) didn’t.

Newsweek could have done that. It could have said “here’s a theory”, and then let the world decide.

It could have, but it didn’t. Why? Because Newsweek believes in the strong, proud and continuous existence of something called “the magazine cover story,” which can still be reported, written, edited, published and defended as if our calendars say 1989, rather than 2014. “I want it to be 25 years ago!” is not an attractive attitude in a journalist, but that is what you hear between the lines in Salmon’s latest post, which is based on his interview with Leah McGrath Goodman.

Salmon calls Goodman “a proud journalist, who gets personally offended whenever anybody raises questions about her journalism, her techniques, or her reporting.” Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today when someone raises questions about your reporting there’s almost an equal chance that a.) they know a great deal more than you, and you will have to listen carefully because your story may turn on it; b.) they’re a troll causing trouble because they can; c.) they’re completely naive on the subject and just coming to the story. Finding out which of these is the case can be difficult. But if you’re offended at having to sort a.) from b.) from c.) you are in the wrong business. Salmon:

Goodman feels that her own personal reputation, combined with the institutional reputation of Newsweek, should count for something — that if Newsweek and Goodman stand behind a story, then the rest of us should assume that they have good reason to do so.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when the people who counted in the game of “my reputation” were: colleagues at Newsweek, Time and US News, editors who had hired you or might hire you in the future, other reporters on the beat that you’re on, non-fiction book editors who could offer a contract, and judges for the National Magazine Awards or similar prizes. Reputation-wise, that’s who counted, 25 years ago. And when someone raised a rude question like, “did that feel like a piped quote to you?” your reputation could answer. Because how was some guy in a basement who happens to have an obsessive interest in your subject going to bust into your peer group and start shooting up your journnalism in a way that raises doubts about you and your magazine?

Never going to happen— in 1989. Today: there are many ways for people who know nothing about the reputation system that nominated you for the 2011 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award to weaken your story while damaging the reputation of Newsweek. Just by getting to the top of one of these stacks they’ve pulled part of it off. Salmon:

In aggregate, says Goodman, an enormous amount of evidence, including evidence which is not public, persuaded her that Dorian Nakamoto was her man. Goodman has not decided whether or how she might publish that evidence.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today: Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have. Instead: “Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.”

That’s not “show your work.” That’s, “You didn’t hear us. We are Newsweek magazine.” They heard you. They don’t care. And they know that Newsweek sold for $1 a few years ago. Here’s Salmon on Goodman and her editor, Jim Impoco.

Both have been largely absent from Twitter and Reddit and RapGenius and other online places where the debate is playing out; instead, they have been giving interviews to mainstream media organizations, which are often unhelpful. TV interviews devolve into stupid fights; interviews with print or online journalists result in just a couple of quotes.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when you do some interviews with other journalists and that’s called publicity. Today: publicity is what is actually happening to your story in real time as it gets shared, discussed and lampooned. If you want to intervene in that you go where it is happening. You make an appearance. It doesn’t mean you have to respond to every attack, or dignify the haters, but you do have to participate in the dialogue. This does not cut it. Salmon:

Impoco and Goodman are mainstream-media journalists producing mainstream content for a mass audience; Goodman’s article was probably already pushing the limits of what Impoco felt comfortable with, given that he couldn’t reasonably assume that most of his readers had even heard of bitcoin. Impoco was interested in creating a splashy magazine article, for the print reincarnation of a storied mass-market newsweekly. Of course, seeing as how this is 2014, the article would appear online, and would reach the people who care a lot about bitcoin, who were sure to make a lot of noise about it. But they weren’t the main audience that Impoco was aiming for.

Felix is trying to be polite. But his phrase, “seeing as how this is 2014…” gives the game away. In 1989, the “audience you were aiming for” and “the audience you would actually reach” by publishing a cover story for Newsweek were likely to match up. Who else would read Newsweek other than the subscribers of Newsweek and the small number who might buy it at the newsstand because the cover “got” to them? Today the situation is not that at all. People you weren’t thinking about when you wrote your article may be a majority of the users online. They’re comparing it to what else they know about bitcoin, not to other great cover packages from Newsweek’s National Magazine Award past.

You don’t get to decide to whom this article will spread. The people formerly known as the audience will do that. Other journalists writing about your screw-ups, like Felix Salmon, will do that. You can’t publish your work on the internet, then act like it was placed gingerly in some mailbox in New Rochelle.

Look, Newsweek. You decided to dig into a subject — bitcoin — about which there is a fairly large and obsessed online community. If you publish on the internet, where it lives, you don’t get to ignore that community anymore, no matter how many creeps, trolls and ignorant fools attack you and earn your disgust. As Felix Salmon is trying to explain: the very form you chose, the Great Newsmagazine Cover Story Chase, is ill-matched to the knowledge distribution and discussion climate around this subject. The thing might have worked as a quest: let’s put our heads together and find the founder of bitcoin! It might have worked as a thesis with evidence attached: show your work! But you don’t know from these forms because you want it to be 25 years ago in journalism time… and it’s not.

UPDATE. Newsweek’s editor did respond to this post. Sort of.

UPDATE, II. Dorian Nakamoto’s lawyer emails a statement to Felix Salmon. This is from The Guardian’s coverage of it.

Issued through his Los Angeles-based lawyer, Ethan Kirschner, the statement “unconditionally” denies the Newsweek report, adding that Nakamoto “did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin”.

“The first time I heard the term ‘bitcoin’ was from my son in mid-February 2014,” the statement continues. “After being contacted by a reporter, my son called me and used the word, which I had never before heard. Shortly thereafter, the reporter confronted me at my home. I called the police. I never consented to speak with the reporter. In an ensuing discussion with a reporter from the Associated Press, I called the technology ‘bitcom’. I was still unfamiliar with the term.”

UPDATE, III. Ars Technica calls for a retraction.


Walt French says:

Some time ago—maybe MORE than 25 years?—I learned that exactly zero subjects of news stories were happy with their treatment in the press.

So this is not news. Nor is Felix Salmon some kid in a basement; he is a thoughtful commenter on this news.

But that doesn’t mean his logic is correct; several points he makes are irrelevant to the question (such as whether he could imagine a revolutionary not wanting to cash in on the huge fortune created by Bitcoin’s founder; those first bitcoins apparently are still in the same wallet) and others are simply wrong (his skepticism that the sheriff’s deputies would’ve spoken as reported; the story has been corroborated).

He comes to a perfectly reasonable conclusion, that *HE* is not convinced enough that *HE* would’ve published the story. But that evaluation is not the basis of the huge blowback by the Bitcoin community, many of whom have expressed outrage that their movement has had some of its anonymity stripped away at the very time a host of bad news — bankruptcies, thefts, allegations of manipulation — ALSO hit.

Judging the Newsweek story by the standards of the outrage from subjects wounded by related articles is really worse than any over-reach that Newsweek made.

Felix Salmon was being entirely too kind. Geeks are up in arms because we expect that when someone says they’re going to prove something, we expect the scientific method and some proof. The newsweek article had little to none of either.

*Maybe* Goodman has more proof… but if so, why would she not have shown it? “Has the right name” and “sort of didn’t entirely deny it” is not exactly a smoking gun.

My 5th grade science teacher would have given me an F if I wrote a paper with as little supporting evidence as was presented in the Newsweek article. She said she eliminated all other candidates… but what she meant was she eliminated all other candidates “With the name satoshi nakamoto”. If you want, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that this guy is the most likely candidate of the people with a name similar to satoshi nakamoto in the US. However, she gave no evidence as to why she ignores the other 5 billion people in the world.

The bottom line is, geeks are up in arms for two reasons:

1.) She posted personal information of someone online, for NO reason. When else do you ever see journalists posting pictures of their subjects’ house and car with license plate? Never.

2.) She didn’t prove her case. Not even a little. It would be a fine thrilling conclusion to a short piece of fiction… but not an article in a magazine that is supposed to be a factual exposé.

I’ve been a journalist/writer for a long time now, about 7 years or so. Here’s what I’ve learned:

You ever watch the news, and they’re discussing a topic you know something about, and they misrepresent it or get some key fact wrong? That’s how the news is about every subject, all the time.

Quite right, sadly.

So great to see this point being made…I’ve been saying exactly this for many years…when I do I get polite agreement and nodding of heads, but then everyone goes out and “consumes” news uncritically…I suspect in part this is because frankly it takes a bit too much time and effort, and of runs contrary to the biases we find comfort in…an so it goes.

I thought Salmon had it in his first piece, and the second piece was too respectful of some supposed wisdom of the tech crowd.

I think you can stop right here: They had a blockbuster story, if it was true. But it couldn’t be determined to be true, it was a good theory.

If they were after the truth instead of a cover story they would have leaked it, much the way Ted Nelson leaked his theory. Both methods were entertaining, Nelson because of his literary skills, and ability to act the part of the sleuth, and Newsweek because (as you say) they did such an excellent impersonation of Newsweek-of-the-past.

It was nice to see it just one more time. Now find another role. Newsweek was once good at hyping stuff, but not any more.

Newsweek wants that legacy-media cred. Yet it’s essentially a digital start-up that acquired the name. As you rightly point out, Jay, it wouldn’t matter if it were legacy media. But it isn’t, no matter how familiar that logo looks.

I’m not sure that’s right, Dan.

What news and information start-up would take this approach?

Q. The New Newsweek: what’s your niche?
A. Niche? Our niche is news.
Q. No, I mean what’s your approach?
A. Our approach is to break stories and become a must-read.
Q. But you must have a theory of the case, a way you’re going to stand out. What is it?
A. We have great journalsts like Kurt Eichenwald, formerly of Vanity Fair. Is that what you mean?
Q. How about a view of the world like the Economist seems to have. Got one of those?
A. People don’t come to Newsweek for biased news. They come for great writing, stunning photography and coverage that helps them make sense of the world.

And so on. That’s legacy, that’s not start-up.

Oh, they’ve got the legacy attitude all right, Jay. I’m just referring to their conceit that their Newsweek has anything to do with, you know, Newsweek.

bystander says:

Regarding that “evidence” that Goodman isn’t willing to share, but is somehow conclusive…

Has Goodman been following the NSA’s claims to “evidence” that they, too, are not willing to share that somehow justifies bulk collection…

I guess not. The “audience’s response” is much the same. Pity Goodman and Newsweek can’t track the parallels. There’s going to be a lot of “transfer of learning” the audience will competently achieve going forward. It’ll never be 1989 again.

Proof this story isn’t true? None here. Just lazy MSM bashing by an unheard of blog. Many typos too.

This article didn’t have the burden of proof, that was Leah’s article. This one merely points out the fallacies in the Newsweek piece. I am one of those people who scoffed at the article about Dorian as soon as I saw it. She had no business posting that man’a information online and changing his life forever. He didn’t ask for it. In fact, he called the police on her ass. She also has no business reporting on something she doesn’t understand the magnitude of, and obviously she didn’t because she didn’t see the shitstorm coming. One if the main pillars of the bitcoin community is anonymity and privacy. She violated both and deserves to get metaphorically “stoned” for doing so.

Geez, Joe, if you don’t have time to READ the article, at least buy it a drink first.

Global warming is caused by space aliens, not humans. Prove it isn’t true, Joe. By the way, I would never point this out except for your observation about typos, but you want a hyphen because “unheard” and “of.”

TheBrionicMan says:

Wow, Joe, you made four attempts but still failed to make a single complete sentence.

That makes your own accusation of laziness hypocritical. Nothing in grammar is lazier than a sentence fragment…except maybe four sentence fragments in a row.

As Dean pointed out, you also missed a hyphen between “unheard” and “of”.

Of course, I’m sure you aren’t embarrassed, because this is all posted on an “unheard of blog”. So unheard-of, in fact, that you read an article there, and posted a stupid comment in front of people more intelligent than yourself…all without having ever heard of it. That’s pretty amazing “Joe”.

You may notice that I and the other people replying to you call it an “article” and not a “story” as you put it. There’s a lesson in that fact somewhere…

Please Joe, consider these replies. Try to learn a thing or two from them. Then maybe, just maybe one day you’ll post an opinion about a “story” on some “unheard of blog” and you’ll actually have the intelligence it takes to form complete sentences which express a point valid enough to use a pseudonym with at least some character, originality, or actual self-identity behind it.

Until then…enjoy the comfortable mediocrity you currently personify. 🙂

Chris Mante says:

(Sung to the tune of “The City Of New Orleans”)

Searching for Satoshi Nakamoto
Bitcoin Libertarian Holy Grail
Invented algorithms keys and passwords
For sending virtu’l money through email
Googling, searching net tea leaves
For all things vaguely Japanese
We found a guy — seemed a perfect fit
Showing up at his front door
Asking him hey what’s the score
Then filled in all the blanks and published it

Good morning America, we’re Newsweek
Out of print but trying to come back
If we’ve got the wrong Satoshi Nakamoto
Well, next week we’ll say sorry and retract

Checking out the details of our story
Pick it apart and keep a careful score
Won’t you pass the Gucci bag that holds the make-up
Reporting on reporting — the press corps
Their daughters not reporters
Their sons, the unemployed
Will wonder what kind of job they did
Writing words that no one read
In an industry long dead
And thinking that it mattered was their dream


Searching for Satoshi Nakamoto
Who it seems has been here all along
In plain sight, almost on our doorstep
Through the California smugness
Doubling down we’re not wrong
All around the people seem
To prefer a print-free scheme
And the steel press still ain’t heard the news
Will reporters sing their songs in vain
Will the presses ever roll again
Newsweek’s got the disappearing reader blues

Good night America, we’re Newsweek
Separating o-pin’yon from fact
If we’ve got the wrong Satoshi Nakamoto
There’s no next week, so sorry, we got sacked

She got Newsweek a ton of publicity and page views.

Now THAT is how today’s journalism works. Fox News owns cable and Newsweek will own print. She knows better than you do.

Anyone who thinks “all publicity is good publicity” hasn’t had much publicity.

TheBrionicMan says:

She’s also hiding out at a friend’s house in Colorado writing menacing social media posts about practicing her gun skills at night…because she’s SUCH a good journalist the readership couldn’t help but show her some “love”.

THAT’s how today’s peer-review process works.

I hope she likes being the queen of print media in her lonely island of paranoia and fear…”knowing better than we do”…

Jeffrey Robinson says:

Jay, There are very very serious ethical questions involved here. Such as, did she lie to Mr. Nakamoto in saying something like I’m a model train collector too? And/or did she lie to the toy train dealer who gave her Mr. Nakamoto’s email address?

Who cares that the cops, only through a third party, supposedly verified Mr. Nakamoto’s answers. That’s hearsay. What would have been more helpful is one of the cops explaining what her questions were that prompted those answers.

And, if Mr. Nakamoto didn’t want to discuss it with her, why didn’t she type up the allegations and say, this is the story we’re going with unless I hear from you? That happens to be SOP in these instances.

The old Newsweek, the real Newsweek, would have had half a dozen editors fact checking everything, which clearly didn’t happen here. Then again, the old Newsweek, the real Newsweek, would never have published this piece, or this reporter. Her track record is one of shoddy reporting and personal victimization.

Finding the Nakamoto who invented bitcoin is a legitimate endeavor. But not being 100% positive that this Satoshi is that Satoshi and then insinuating he is, revealing his address, publishing photos of his home and car with his license plate in view, is reprehensible.

Interestingly enough, a few days ago she was quoted as saying that if she’d read her own story, she wouldn’t believe it either.

There is something seriously out of whack here.

What’s more, for anyone from this incarnation of Newsweek, a title-only own by a company with a questionable journalistic heritage, to suggest that they have an 81 year tradition of serious journalism, has to be a joke. They bought the title and have turned it into a supermarket tabloid. Our old pals at Newsweek need to speak out and set that record straight.

I believe she did mislead the model train dealer and also her subject in discussing toy trains. That’s not a valid reporter’s technique. She has a moral duty to properly identify herself. That’s the rule at serious newspapers, and was the case at the old Newsweek. It is not part of the 81 minute tradition of this imitation Newsweek.

Of course, she could prove me wrong by releasing all her emails with the toy dealer and Mr. Nakamoto. Especially the ones where she says, up front, that she’s a reporter working on a bitcoin story. None of us should hold our breaths.

And then there is her reliance on something as idiotic as “forensic” journalism to conclude that someone you cannot eliminate has got to be the one. That’s voodoo and goes against every single established principle of serious reporting. It’s not just a fast track to an illogical conclusion, it’s utter crap.

But what pisses me off most of all, is her use of selective quotes in a highly suspicious way that raises a colossal red flag.

Appallingly, the media hasn’t called her out on this.

She quotes Mr. Nakamoto as saying “I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it,” without putting those answers into any context, such as by posing her questions.

To me, that stinks of deliberate deception. To me that says she’s manipulated the quotes to serve her purpose because this was as close as she could get without lying about his responses, which she didn’t dare do with two cops as witnesses.

This isn’t journalism, it’s pickpocket sleight of hand.

She did it again with the rest of the quote, to wit: “It’s been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection.”

I cannot stress enough how enormously suspect this is.

Besides the fact that her reporting and conclusion is based entirely on conjecture and circumstantial evidence… it wouldn’t fly in a court of law and should never, ever, fly in the arena of responsible journalism… this woman’s ultimate sin is evident in what happened after the story was published.

She started appearing on countless television news programs to defend her work. Increasingly, she realized, she was in trouble.

Well, what happens when you show up on program after program speaking about the same subject is that you develop a patter. I know this from very long experience in the media. Journalists questioning you tend, more or less, to ask the same questions. So, after the first few times, you begin to form answers that better and better suit your case.

On one of the programs, 24 hours AFTER the story broke — please note, 24 hours AFTER the story broke — as reported by Forbes, she said this: “I was prepared up until the day I spoke to him for him to laugh and say it was a ridiculous coincidence. But he didn’t; he acknowledged it. I told him, ‘You’re acknowledging Bitcoin and if you weren’t involved you need to tell me now.’ He said, ‘I cannot do that.’”

Here, finally, is Mr. Nakamoto answering a question with the word bitcoin in it. The two words – Nakamoto and bitcoin – are directly linked for the only time.

“I told him, ‘You’re acknowledging Bitcoin and if you weren’t involved you need to tell me now.’ He said, ‘I cannot do that.’”

It is the single most damning evidence she has. And yet… it’s not in her story.

Why not? That’s obvious. If she’d had it for her story, she wouldn’t have left it out. She couldn’t have left it out. It had to be there. It goes further than anything else she’s got towards making her case. It’s an acknowledgement from Mr. Nakamoto that he had something to do with bitcoin.

It’s not in her story because she only came up with it 24 hours AFTER the story broke. She had 24 hours of practice in interviews to bet on this quote as the best single response to defend herself from charges of shoddy journalism.

I think the evidence is overwhelming that she made it up.

She says there is no tape recording of her five minutes with Mr. Nakamoto, which I find impossible to believe. If that’s true, she’s totally incompetent. No serious journalist ever ever ever interview anyone without putting everything on tape. You do it to be certain your quotes are accurate and you do it for legal reasons.

For this woman to attempt to interview someone whom she knows does not want to be interviewed, and knowing from experience that she might possibly find herself in a contentious situation without a recording as proof positive of what was said, is nothing short of gross incompetence and stupidity.

Without a recording of the events, Newsweek’s lawyers should never have permitted any of the quotes to be used as quotes.

She claims to be an experienced investigative reporter, so my bet is she did have a tape recorder. It was in her hand or in her pocket, and turned on.

But she can’t admit to it because the recording does not support her version of events.

Which is the truth? The quote that ran in the story, or the one she came up with 24 hours later? She can’t have it both ways. One of them has to be a lie.

Those of us who have been in this business for a long time care about responsible journalism. This story by this reporter and the defense of her work is a travesty.

Jim Impoco, Newsweek’s editor, who happens to be the real deal, now says – because he has to say something to save his magazine from the nightmare she’s created – that this was “textbook” reporting.

Everyone in the business knows that’s not true. And I’m sad for him that he’s found himself in this position.

Textbook reporting? Seriously?

You wouldn’t use that textbook in your classes. In fact, any J-school that would, deserves to be shut down for malpractice and moral ineptitude. / JR

Harvey Faulkner says:

One wonders how long it will be until the reporter of this travesty announces that she is leaving Newsweek “to spend more time with my family.”

I feel sorry for Mr Nakamotos of this world, virtual and real. As I feel sorry for this woman journalist as most journos feel that they have to come up with a scoop or exclusives … We all need to put bread on a table and sadly it is not possible to spend more time with our families. This story published on St Patrick’s Day shed a bit of light on newspeak of 1984 and reverse defamation: “Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, who Newsweek claimed was “the” Satoshi Nakamoto credited with the creation of bit coin, has now issued a statement through his lawyer Ethan Kirschner completely denying his involvement in creating the digital currency.

“I did not create, invent, or otherwise work on Bitcoin. I unconditionally deny the Newsweek report,” Nakamoto said in the statement.

The Newsweek story, which revealed details about Dorian’s life including what town he lived in, sparked something akin to a modern tech manhunt as reports raced to chase the older man down. To be fair, Dorian denied everything then, too, and then again.”

Great analysis by Eugene Volokh (of Conspiracy fame)
Reverse defamation, the Newsweek Bitcoin story, and Satoshi Nakamoto


Speaking of defamation, We all need to develop thicker skins

Ermintrude says:

This is great food for thought. I’m not a journalist. But if I was, I’d be looking at how I can thrive in this environment. The ground has shifted under journalists who used to thrive on writing provocative articles. People who write blogs can throw a billion facts at them proving they’re wrong. I’d try to find things I can do that bloggers can’t.

Blogging has a huge amount of expertise-people who know an insane amount about an industry, things no outsider could ever grasp. But what it doesn’t have is time-most of the writers on blogs have full-time real jobs, and can’t just hop over to California to track down some guy. Journalists have that. Great journalism of the future will put pieces of a topic together in ways one person can’t. Maybe comparing industries in different countries, for example.

Newspaper journalists are generalists-they have to be. They rarely have the total insight into a specific industry someone who works in it does-they interview people who do, and hope they chose the right ones.

He didn’t ask for it. In fact, he called the police on her ass. She also has no business reporting on something she doesn’t understand the magnitude of, and obviously she didn’t because she didn’t see the shitstorm coming. One if the main pillars of the bitcoin community is anonymity and privacy
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