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Apple Agonistes: Fake Steve vs. Real Steve

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 7:48 AM

On one point, at least, there is no dispute: Apple executives are not big fans of Newsweek tech writer Daniel Lyons, who couldn't even get an advance iPad while Steve Jobs was granting an exclusive interview to Time.

Lyons, after all, writes a personal, often biting blog as Fake Steve Jobs.

But the question of whether a former Newsweek staffer sent word that Apple would no longer cooperate with the magazine because of Fake Steve's hiring has sparked a dispute in the blogosphere. It is a contretemps that has pitted Lyons against Newsweek's previous tech reporter, Steven Levy, and highlighted two very different approaches to the much-hyped maker of iPhones and iPods.

The tangled tale began Sunday on my CNN program "Reliable Sources," when Lyons said that before Newsweek hired him in 2008, a top Apple PR executive told Levy "to pass word to the powers that be at Newsweek that Apple wasn't happy with the idea that they were going to hire me. Yes, that happened."

"That's just totally wrong," Levy, who now writes for Wired magazine, said Tuesday. "I didn't pass anything on in terms of a message from Apple. It just simply did not happen."

But naturally enough, in a story about technology reporting, there is an electronic trail to unravel.

Lyons apologized Tuesday for misstating the sequence of events. The conversations he recalled -- quite vividly, he says, because he "was so freaked by it" -- took place shortly after Newsweek agreed to hire him as Levy's successor, not before. Lyons says Levy told him directly that Apple was upset by his hiring and told others at Newsweek (including then-business editor David Jefferson).

On June 30, 2008, Kathy Deveny, now Newsweek's deputy editor, e-mailed Lyons to say: "apparently apple has already complained to levy that we hired you. you should be proud!"

Lyons responded to his new boss: "i think it's a bit shady of levy to be writing to me telling me how happy he is for me, call anytime, etc., and then lobbying against me at newsweek."

Deveny wrote back: "don't worry about this!! hard for me to tell exactly what apple said --levy only told david jefferson. . . . maybe flack was just trying to suck up to levy. so i wouldn't exactly call it lobbying against you."

The next day, Lyons e-mailed Levy to ask who at Apple "complained to you about Newsweek hiring me" because he wanted to "mend fences," and the two men spoke later in the day.

In a follow-up interview, Levy says that he may have been gossiping with Jefferson but that "Apple never told me to tell Newsweek anything. I was never carrying water for Apple in any conversation I might have had with David Jefferson."

To Levy, "this is like hiring Rush Limbaugh as your White House correspondent" and expecting to get interviews. Lyons's "most notable professional accomplishment is a vicious satire of Apple."

Apple did not respond to requests for comment. Deveny says she recalls talking to Levy at the time and did not regard him as passing on a warning from Apple. "He was just basically saying, 'They'll never talk to you guys again.' Steven's very positive on Apple, and that's fine. Did we get better access when Steven worked here? Yeah, we did."

As for Apple's lack of cooperation with Lyons -- who nonetheless praised the iPad in last week's cover story -- Deveny says: "He's pretty mean to them in his blog."

Racial Politics?

When it comes to Michael Steele, it's hard not to be a voyeur.

Yes, it's somewhat unfair that he took the rap for the expenses at that lesbian-bondage-themed club in West Hollywood when he wasn't even there, but there were the private jets and all the other big-ticket items that have ticked off Republican donors. The Voyeur club was the tip of a political iceberg that seems to be melting support for the GOP chairman. And getting rid of his chief of staff is unlikely to quiet the criticism. "Mr. Steele is commanding attention mostly for questionable expenditures by the committee, lagging fund-raising, staff defections and dismissals, an aggressive round of paid speeches and speaking appearances and politically inopportune remarks," says the NYT.

Steele first appeared on my radar screen in 2006 when, as Maryland's lieutenant governor, he was running for the Senate. He had a "background" breakfast with a bunch of reporters and talked trash about the Republican Party, criticizing President Bush and saying he wore the party label as a "scarlet letter." How on earth did he think his identity wouldn't leak?

Since then, Steele has exhibited a marvelous ability to talk his way into trouble, or to appear out for himself (such as when he wrote a book without telling party officials or began moonlighting as a paid speaker). He seems remarkably gaffe-prone, but when Republicans won a series of elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, he got none of the credit.

While it's impossible to ignore that Steele is the first black chairman in GOP history -- one who declared that the party needed a "hip-hop" makeover -- I haven't really viewed his rocky tenure in racial terms. But when ABC's George Stephanopoulos, reciting a question from his blog, asked whether as an African American he had "a slimmer margin for error than another chairman would," Steele replied: "The honest answer is yes. . . . Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. . . . My view of politics is much more grass-roots oriented, it's not ole boy network oriented. So I tend to come at it a little bit stronger, a little more streetwise. That's rubbed some feathers the wrong way."

The bloggers pounced: Steele was playing the race card!

Atlantic's Joshua Green: "Michael Steele told ABC News that racism lies behind the torrent of criticism he's received pretty much since becoming RNC chairman. Let's get something straight: Michael Steele has plenty of problems, but his race isn't one of them.

"Steele is hapless, solipsistic, and incompetent. When he isn't embarrassing his party with his personal antics, or his staff's, he's setting it up for failure by driving away its top fundraisers and not keeping pace with Democrats. It's impossible to imagine his magisterial display of buffoonery going unpunished in almost any circumstance -- but it is going unpunished, and Steele appears to be in no danger of losing his job. Far from being a problem, his race is all that's standing between Steele and a pink slip.

"The GOP, on the other hand, does have a race problem. It won't fire Michael Steele because he is black."

TPM founder Josh Marshall: "I don't think there's any question that when the conversation about Michael Steele starts going to whether and how much Steele is spending frivolously, likes the living the high-life and is living large on other people's money, that race is there in the mix. It can't not be.

"But let's be honest: everything about Michael Steele's tenure running the RNC is about race.

"Michael Steele got the job for one reason: Republicans needed someone who could be the point man for bashing Barack Obama while being immune not only from charges of racism but any discussion of the fact that the current GOP is a party made up pretty much 100% of white folks. . . .

"Republicans were always basically full of it and barking up the wrong tree when they tried to claim either that Democrats picked Barack Obama because he was black or that he was winning because he was black. So what did the Republicans do: turn around and hire someone to lead their party pretty much for the sole reason that he was black. As is so often the case, the critics of racial progress, because they don't comprehend it, resort to a parody of it."

It does seem that Steele has an extra bit of job insurance. But some of the bloggers went too far in saying that Steele was accusing his critics of racism.

Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, once brought in to help Steele at the RNC, says the chairman should resign "for the good of the party."

At National Review, meanwhile, Thomas Sowell lobs a racial charge against the president's party:

"Playing the race card has become an increasingly common response to growing public anger at the policies of the Obama administration and the way those policies have been imposed. . . .

"When a few African-American Democrats walked into the Capitol the weekend of the vote, they passed through a crowd of citizens expressing their anger. According to some Democrats, these expressions of anger included racial slurs.

"This is a serious charge -- and one deserving of some serious evidence. But, despite all the media recording devices on the scene, not to mention recording devices among the crowd gathered there, nobody can come up with a single recorded sound to back up that incendiary charge."

I must say, I'm kinda tired of the it-must-not-have-happened-if-I-didn't-see-it-on-YouTube argument. But National Review has a fair-minded report here.

Sowell continues: "However soothing the Obama rhetoric, and however lofty his statements about being a uniter rather than a divider -- both racially and in terms of bipartisanship -- everything in his past fairly shouts the opposite, but only to those who follow facts. . . .

"Obama has promoted to the Supreme Court a circuit judge who dismissed a discrimination lawsuit by white firefighters, whose case the Supreme Court later accepted and decided in their favor." Yes, and Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed by a 68-31 Senate vote.

Web Wars

A take-no-prisoners feud has erupted on the always nettlesome subject - -to journalists, anyway -- of appropriating other people's online content.

The founder of the Hollywood Web site The Wrap, Sharon Waxman, threw the first punch against Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff, founder of the aggregator site Newser.com:

"In our 14 months of our operation, Newser.com, with an audience of about 3 million unique viewers per month, has sent us precisely 1,600 users. But it has plenty of Wrap content. . . .

"On closer scrutiny, I found that it was worse than I thought. Although [Editor Caroline] Miller said that Newser practice is to put credit and an embedded link to the story's originator (an editing omission, she said, with the Beyoncé piece). I easily found instances where they did no such thing ('Fox, Howard Stern Talking Idol,' 'DirecTV Boss to Be Murdoch's New Vice-Chair') and others where they cited The Wrap but 'forgot' to link: ('American Idol Snags DeGeneres as 4th Judge,' 'Obama Visits Dave Monday'). Here's one where they just lifted the entire article, a timeline about Tom Cruise.

"Then I discovered the 'source grid' page, where I found an entire page of beautifully-presented Wrap content, without a single link to us.

"Instead, the grid linked to Newser rewrites of Wrap stories. One click gets you to the 'Wrap' page, another click gets you to the summary, then a third click to the one Wrap link -- but no, not yet, first they served you AN AD! Four clicks to get to TheWrap.com, whose content it is, if you close out the ad and can wait that long. That's not competition, that's parasitism. . . . This should not be acceptable behavior in a world in which we are trying to build the new models for journalism."

That, as you might expect, brought a strong response from Michael Wolff :

"Sharon Waxman, a former New York Times reporter who now edits the Wrap -- a low-traffic news site about the movie business -- is having indigestion because Newser shortens her stories (she says that we don't link to her -- but is really just sour that Newser readers don't find a need to click the link under the BIG RED SOURCE BOX that would take them to her longer story). Sounding more like a self-righteous New York Times veteran than a new news entrepreneur, she is of the opinion that the online news marketplace should be structured to best provide her with a living. 'We're talking about survival here,' she declares. In other words, the rules should favor her business, rather than the efficiency that the consumer is looking for.

"Waxman and [Rupert] Murdoch are hiding behind a curious conceit of value and originality -- as though they own the news. The foundation of news, I am happy to instruct, has always been the rewrite desk. My first job in journalism, in another age, was to collect all the newspapers in New York as they came off their respective presses and rush them back to rewrite at the New York Times.

"The facts are the facts -- resorted, rewritten, republished as soon as they are known. The value is the style and efficiency with which they are presented."

The Web seems to be choosing up sides. Salon's Andrew Leonard says that "what takes Newser beyond countless other similar sites is a truly precious degree of shamelessness." But Slate's Jack Shafer says: "Allow me to side with the despicable Wolff. Waxman calls him a parasite, but I think he's a host. And the limited success of his site, which serves copy in sushi-size mouthfuls, is trying to tell Waxman something about the Web audience."

Breaking News

"Ex-Giants superstar Tiki Barber has dumped his 8-months-pregnant wife, Ginny, for sexy former NBC intern Traci Lynn Johnson, sources told The New York Post last night."

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

The Boss and The Babe

I had missed this New York Post report, with all its musical references:

"Bruce Springsteen's 'Human Touch' made her melt.

"Ann Kelly, 45, was a housewife living with her mortgage-broker husband and two children in a $600,000 home in a leafy New Jersey suburb. But when the married Springsteen entered her life in 2005 -- showering her with concert tickets, serenading her during rehearsals and confessing she was on his mind while he toured -- the Jersey girl got lost in a 'Tunnel of Love,' court records alleged.

"The relationship between Kelly and the 'Born to Run' singer began with chitchats on the treadmills at a high-priced Red Bank, NJ, gym, but the pace quickened with lunch dates and eventually a full-on affair, her soon-to-be ex-husband claimed."

Salon's Rebecca Traister, a fan of Springsteen's wife Patty Scialfa, finds this . . . refreshingly wholesome:

"Apparently, at the height of their supposed liaison, local whispering about Springsteen and Kelly got so disruptive that Ann's father urged her to quit the gym. Hear that? Quit the gym. As opposed to quitting Ambien, random cocktail waitresses, call girls, the campaign for the American presidency, or couch sex at your office with a tattoo-covered woman who was not your wife and had a thing for the Third Reich.

"As far as I can tell, there were no Nazi outfits or salutes involved in this story. No used tampons or violent text messages. No one's wife had terminal cancer, no one got a mistress pregnant. No one had a business card reading 'Truth Seeker' or one reading 'Being is Free.' There was not even a 'ping-pong impresario' involved in this story. Also, Springsteen's scandal has not prompted veiled public apologies, hiatuses from the sport; no press conferences or girlfriends who have follow-up press conferences to your press conferences. Just some bitingly angry lyrics from Scialfa's 2007 album 'Play It As It Lays'. . . .

"While, if true, Springsteen's behavior was likely painful for his family, it seems on its face not to have been built on the degradation, objectification, hatred for or cruel treatment of wives or mistresses, but on appreciation for a specific, normal-looking 45-year-old woman who happened to be a dead ringer for his wife. When viewed in the light of celebrities who have sex with multiple, seemingly interchangeable women half their age, who hire staff to cover up for them, who have sex with interlopers in their spouse's beds and choose as sexual partners fame-seeking publicity generators, the aged rock star who flirts awkwardly and tries to change the politics of the age-appropriate(ish) lady at his gym is practically chivalric."

That might be going a bit far, even if it's hard to be a saint in the city.

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