Coins and Trains

Coins and Trains

Article from Issue 162/2014
Author(s):

Newsweek’s story uncovering the man they claim is the creator of BitCoin caused plenty of buzz. As this issue goes to press, the guy they fingered has announced he is filing a lawsuit, claiming that the assertions are false. But according to the story, his brother said “He’ll never admit to starting BitCoin.” So who should we believe?

Many commentators have argued that the story is not sufficiently corroborated and shouldn’t have been printed, which might be true. But the question of the story’s treatment of facts masks another question that is receiving much less attention: Even if the allegations are true, is this really a news story?

Coins and Trains

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

Newsweek's story uncovering the man they claim is the creator of BitCoin caused plenty of buzz. As this issue goes to press, the guy they fingered has announced he is filing a lawsuit, claiming that the assertions are false. But according to the story, his brother said "He'll never admit to starting BitCoin." So who should we believe?

Many commentators have argued that the story is not sufficiently corroborated and shouldn't have been printed, which might be true. But the question of the story's treatment of facts masks another question that is receiving much less attention: Even if the allegations are true, is this really a news story?

Newsweek spent two months investigating this report, and the quarry at the end of this hunt – the pot of gold under Newsweek's rainbow – was nothing more than an identity. Newsweek compromising this fellow's privacy was the whole story. With all the BitCoin business in the headlines – millions lost, hacks undetected, exchanges bankrupt – the "scoop" they offered the world was: We found the BitCoin guy, he lives with his mom, and we know the color of his house!

Seriously, did this guy do something that belongs in the news? If so, what? Is he involved with BitCoin now? Was he ever involved with BitCoin as a business? Did he commit a crime? Did he cross some line of propriety? Even if you think of this as a simple human interest story, you still have to tell people something they don't know. Did he (allegedly) create BitCoin for some greater purpose? Why did he stop his (alleged) involvement?

We already knew the person who created BitCoin was named Satoshi Nakamoto; now Newsweek rolls out the revelation that (according to them) Satoshi is actually his middle name and his first name is Dorian. This might be a good starting point for an article, but is it really enough to justify printing all those magazines? Of course, we get additional tidbits: He is 64 years old. His brother thinks he's smart. He used to work for intelligence services. He likes model trains. But seriously, all this really looks like somebody's Facebook profile. Where's the news?

The great investigative stories of the past were always about something: Iran-Contra, Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal  – these sagas had their share of big, colorful personalities, but the narrative wasn't just about the outing of identities.

It occurs to me that, if the person they find at the end of their quest actually cooperates with them and gives them real information about BitCoin, they would be obligated to respect the confidentiality of the source. But if he doesn't give them information, they are free to expose him in any way that benefits their circulation. Investigative journalism thus devolves into a form of legal blackmail: "Give me the story, or you'll be the story."

Watching the news of Newsweek's "discovery" filter through the Internet news sites, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu. Nine years ago, a reporter for Sys-Con embarked on a similar identity quest to expose personal information about Groklaw commentator Pamela Jones, following her around and allegedly publishing purported address and telephone numbers for Jones and her mother. In that case, readers rebelled, forcing Sys-Con to apologize and drop the reporter's column. Will Newsweek's readers have a similar reaction? Probably not. Pamela Jones was a cult figure with a loyal following among open source readers. The BitCoin thing is more of a business deal, which will never engender the same kind of personal loyalty. But still, it makes me wonder whether we are losing our sense that there is a difference between news and traffic – or, as we call it in the print biz, circulation.

In the strange case of the Bitcoin story, even if Newsweek is correct about Mr. Nakamoto (which many journalists doubt), all they have really done is associate him with a technical paper published on a cryptography mailing list six years ago. That's it.

And even that might not be right. But thanks for telling us that he likes model trains. After all, the public has a right to know.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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