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Did Local Media Encourage Ripping Off Microsoft? 

    Suppose the local weekend farmers’ market in your community decided to experiment with an honor system of payment. The groceries were laid out in boxes. Prices were plainly marked. A scale hung in each stand to weigh the produce. A cash register tray held the money openly so buyers could make change. No one was there to supervise. 

    Were local reporters to discover such a set-up would they be right to trumpet their finding under a front page headline: “Grocery Shoppers Get Price Break?” Would reporting that presented this simply as an opportunity for shoppers to cash in at the farmers’ expense be moral? 

        What if bargain-hunters descended on the farmers’ market and stripped its counters making a point of not paying? What if the farmers lost many thousands of dollars? Could the paper be blamed for encouraging or at least enabling immoral activity?

What happened?

        Something similar happened during the first week of January. However, the honor system was not set up by truck farmers, but Microsoft, the easy-to-hate software giant.

    Microsoft offered shoppers at office supply retailers like Office Max and Staples up to $400 in rebates if they would first sign up for the Microsoft Network Internet service at $21.95 per month for up to three years. The rebate agreement stipulated that those who did not keep the service for the full term would pay back the rebate, except those living in California and Oregon. At the time, Microsoft believed those states’ laws forbade requiring re-payment.

        The paper trumpeting the “loophole” was the Pulitzer-winning San Jose Mercury News. But it wasn’t alone. At least one local television anchor, Channel 7’s Jessica Aguirre, asked her audience “How would you like to make an easy $400?” 

        The Mercury News put the story above the fold on page one, January 5, with the headline: “Shoppers get $400 break in fine print.” The jump page headline read: “Fine print gives shoppers best buy on Internet offer.” The reporting betrayed no sense that to get the money, buyers would have to break faith with Microsoft. The office supply chains offering the Microsoft Network rebate deal were immediately swamped with customers taking advantage of the “break.” Citing abuse, Microsoft withdrew the offer on the evening of January 6. 

A moral issue?

        “At the least, it’s ethically callous,” said Michael Meyer, a scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University. “When you trumpet an opportunity like this, you’re in some way complicit with people’s action, even if you didn’t intend to be,” he explained. “You’re enabling it.”

The Mercury News responds

        Deborah Kong, the reporter who broke the story in the Mercury News, referred requests to comment to Randall Keith, telecom/e-commerce editor at the paper. He refused to respond to questions from Grade the News, sending a terse email that read: “We’ll let the stories speak for themselves.”

Going deeper

        Manuel Velasquez, a professor of business ethics at Santa Clara University, said “the newspaper should at least have mentioned that ‘some’ might feel that there were ethical issues involved.” To be fair, in its January 7 story announcing Microsoft’s suspension of the rebate, the paper did cite a debate on the Internet about the ethics of accepting the rebate with no intention of keeping the service. 

    But the Mercury did not discuss any ethical role for the media. “The Merc failed to address...their responsibility for the ‘stampede’ that resulted when they published their story,” Velasquez said. “Had it not been for their story, probably the company would not have suffered the losses it did.” 

    Velasquez, whose book on business ethics has become a standard textbook on many campuses, noted that there was at least an ethical issue to be explored. The MSN contract explicitly permitted subscribers to cancel early. It said they could do so without penalty in Oregon and California. 

    “All of this would seem to at least suggest that although Microsoft would like the buyer to continue with MSN, still the buyer was under no obligation—moral or legal—to continue with the service,” he explained. “On the other hand, of course, one could argue that Microsoft at least implied that it expected the buyer to remain with MSN—otherwise why make the offer?—and that the buyer who used the loan/rebate was, at least implicitly, making a good faith commitment to remain with MSN.” 

    “One could also argue that good-faith buyers would not accept the $400 unless they were seriously interested in continuing with MSN, because it was clear that that was Microsoft’s intent in making the offer.”

So what?

    The Markkula Center’s Meyer sees a danger when the media take an amoral point of view in a story with a moral dimension. “So many people have lost the ability to talk in a normative voice.” One reason why “society is blind to [moral] questions [is] because the media are helping the blindness along.” 

    Knowing the integrity of the Mercury News, it’s unlikely the paper would encourage consumers to take advantage of a farmer’s market on the honor system. But having one standard for David and another for Goliath is an example of bias. Anti-Microsoft bias is popular enough in Silicon Valley that it may not be noticed. But journalists are called to a higher standard than following popular culture. 

    Reflecting, rather than challenging, popular bias is dangerous for journalists and society. Small taken-for-granted prejudices can lead to larger actions—marginalizing people because of race, or gender, or sexual orientation. History is full of cases where assumptions that some people or companies don’t deserve fair play have led to tragedy.

-- John McManus 

What do you think?