Quick note: earlier this Spring, a series of events unfolded where a Newsweek journalist challenged ethics in the field by acting – as some have put it – with an unwarranted amount of investigative nature and for releasing too much information about her subject to the public. Her subject was the “founder” of Bitcoin. The goal of this post is not to resurrect the drama and sensationalism during these past events, but to analyze what exactly happened and open up lines to discuss ethics in journalism.
Here is a timeline of the events
On March 6, 2014 at 6:05 AM, Newsweek journalist Leah Goodman published a lengthy feature of her efforts to unmask the supposed creator of Bitcoin. The article quickly became controversial for lack of concrete evidence, posting his full name and picture of his house, and possibly having pegged the wrong person — essentially putting a hundred-million dollar bull’s eye on someone who was very much trying to live a quiet and isolated life.
The article synced with Newsweek’s ‘back to print’ campaign, generating enormous – yet uncontrolled buzz around the Newsweek ‘resurrection’ and their current owner, IBT Media.
There are two fundamental reasons for the public to retaliate against Goodman’s piece:
- The founder of Bitcoin is known to have an estimated of 500 million USD in Bitcoin, meaning one would only need to break into his house and steal his private keys. Regardless of whether Goodman got the right person, she has essentially provided a treasure map, putting this particular Nakamoto in potential danger.
- Bitcoin is intended to have no central authority, so the very nature of the story is counter-productive to Bitcoins’ progress, the Bitcoin community and the public.
Moments after the story went live, enraged comments stampeded in:
In response to the comment section which was overflowing in accusations, disappointment, insults and threats, Newsweek published an official statement on March 7 at 12:09 PM. However, their effort to justify Goodman’s journalism and the brand’s ethics proved futile in the public eye:
Later on March 7 at 3:08 PM, the Associated Press published the first extensive interview with Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto, where he repeatedly affirms, “I got nothing to do with it.” This should have been the closure everyone was seeking. However, onevitalquote from Goodman’s piece sought to keep this issue alive; “I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it. It’s been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection.”
Later on March 7 at 4:45 PM, CNET published a brief post confirming that vital quote. The police officers who were present when Nakamoto spoke those words both agreed it was accurate.
In response to the controversy and uncalculated hazards impacting Dorian, Andreas M. Antonopoulos—Serial tech-entrepreneur with a passion and heavy involvement in the Bitcoin community — posted in the Bitcoin subreddit to fundraise for Dorian, stating, “these funds will serve as a ‘sorry for what happened to you’, help with medical bills his family is facing, any legal bills they may incur, or anything else.” Andreas kicked off the fundraiser by donating 1.5 BTC (about $940 USD) himself.
Also on March 7, Gavin Andresen, chief scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation, posted to the Bitcoin subreddit with an open letter to Leah Goodman expressing disappointment in the excessive circumstantial evidence published, inspiring discussion about “personal privacy and the role of journalists in our ‘pan-opticon’ world.”
On March 8, the News Genius community took a crack at Goodman’s article. 28 of the 50 annotations were verified by Gavin Andreessen, the Chief Scientist at Bitcoin, and Balaji Srinivasan, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz and Lecturer at Stanford University in the Departments of Statistics and Computer Science. The annotations completely expose and derail Goodman’s faltering investigative results. Confirmations include the authentic/original Satoshi Nakamoto account on P2P foundation denying he is Dorian Nakamoto on March 7 at 1:17 AM.
The only fighting chance Goodman is given, as we might have guessed, brings us back to the vitalquote above. The News Genius community suggests Dorian may have been respecting NDAs and associating Bitcoin as part of the projects he cannot discuss, unaware of how a journalist may spin his words. He may have simply been trying to get Goodman to leave, since Nakamoto supposedly called the cops due to Goodman’s excessive lurking outside his house.
Also on March 8, Cale Guthrie Weissman and Carmel DeAmicis of PandoDaily published an interview with Jim Impoco, Editor in Chief at Newsweek. Impoco affirms they have taken security measures to protect the wave of death threats targeting Goodman. Impoco stands firmly behind the story and unwavering in certainty. Impoco shows no concern for the safety of Nakamoto in his interview with Pando.
On March 8 at 5:57 PM, Anil Dash, Cofounder of Thinkup and ActivateInc, tweets:
The full conversation and more can be read here.
On March 9, Arthur Nakamoto, Dorian Satoshio Nakamoto’s brother, posted on the Bitcoin subreddit, verifying his own identity as Dorian’s brother, offering background to their private lives, and accusing Goodman of falsifying information and endangering his family.
On March 10, Felix Salmon of Reuters published a meaty critique about why Newsweek isn’t convincing. According to Salmon’s research and phone conversation with Goodman, both Jim Impoco and Goodman remained MIA during hot online debates like the News Genius critique and reddit. Salmon also points out how Goodman/Newsweek could have better framed the article as more of a theory to avoid much of the public evisceration. Ultimately, Salmon concludes his skepticism will remain until Goodman can ‘demonstrate systematic and analytically-convincing manner that her forensic techniques point to a high probability that Dorian is Satoshi.’ I think most would side with Salmon here.
On March 10 at 10:49 AM, Michael Wolf from The Guardian published an article with a different angle than most publications at the time — reminding us of the journalistic shift in Newsweek and how IBT acquired them, creating a ‘feisty and uncertain startup’ environment. Wolf mentions their current level of quality is nothing more than ‘half-baked’ and concludes this would have fared better as an ‘internet story’ on a publication likes Gawker or BuzzFeed.
On March 11 at 3:57 PM, Hiroko Tabuchi for the New York Times published an article about the ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ name itself, consulting Hiroshi Morioka, an expert on the study of Japanese surnames, to show how popular the name is. Tabuchi also speculates about the genius mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki of Kyoto University being a frequently-cited candidate for the Bitcoin creator title.
On March 14 a great discussion was held over a Google Hangout on PBS’s MediaShift program. As a demonstration of why Goodman got the wrong Nakamoto, Stephanie Murphy (host of popular Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast and COO at Fr33 Aid) confirms correspondence with Satoshi and mentions he has a PGP key he could have signed and emailed for verification, and mentions alternatives for Satoshi to confirm his identity. Elise Hu (tech and culture reporter for NPR) points out the branding/marketing side of the story and raises the question, “is all publicity good publicity?” Since the story launch synced with Newsweek’s ‘back to print’ campaign, Hu suggests this is the reason Newsweek kept their fact digging and narrative murky. Andrew Lih (new media journalist and associate professor of journalism at American University) notes that ultimately the public is now aware of Newsweek and their new ownership, but the reception is rocky.
As of March15, Wikipedia has included a segment for Dorian Nakamoto on the Satoshi Nakamoto page, covering the Newsweek allegations and listing the P2P Foundation account as a counter.
I am writing this statement to clear my name.
I did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin. I unconditionally deny the Newsweek report.
My prospects for gainful employment has been harmed because of Newsweek’s article.
Newsweek’s false report has been the source of a great deal of confusion and stress for myself, my 93-year old mother, my siblings and their families. I offer my sincerest thanks to those people in the United States and around the world who have offered me their support. I have retained legal counsel. This will be our last public statement on this matter. I ask that you now respect our privacy.
In response to these statements, Newsweek posted the following:
“Newsweek has not received any statement or letter from either Mr. Nakamoto or his legal counsel. If and when we do, we will respond as necessary.”
Official statements from Dorian, Gavin Andresen, and Satoshi’s authentic P2P account, along with weighed and thorough analysis from experts and public forums, collectively amount to a massive Newsweek blunder. Even with a traffic and publicity spike, the reception was majorly negative, effectively crippling their resurgence and reputation.
This series of events raises two important questions:
- At what point are journalists crossing the line of ethics, and how can people like Dorian better protect themselves from journalist stalkers?
- How much evidence is needed to run with a story, and does due-diligence and accuracy play an effective role in the business and marketing side of journalism?
Here is a bit of extra information to consider for the purpose of a healthy discussion:
- L.A. County Sherrif Department Captain Mike Parker wrote in his statement that the police officers were dispatched to the scene because Nakamoto had grown afraid to open his door, after Goodman had been sitting on his porch for the past hour. (via CNET)
- A great line from Salmon: