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Negative Rhetoric

Week of April 21, 2002
Journalists everywhere will warn of the dire consequences of negative rhetoric, but few will opt for it if the only alternative is to lie.

IBM has a new campaign underway called 'Take Out Microsoft', the idea behind which is to pep sales personnel and give them a tangible objective for selling their goods in competition with those of their friends in Redmond.

Journalists have warned against this campaign in Armonk, citing similar campaigns by Oracle and Sun which have misfired. It's the negative rhetoric, these media gurus say, which will hit flat with IBM's customers at the end of the day.

And they are undoubtedly right.

Yet castigating negative rhetoric in its entirety leaves but one remaining type of rhetoric, a type netizens have become increasingly suspicious of over the years.

Too many e-zines publish consistently glowing reviews of software products, public knowledge of deficiencies in these products to the contrary, and then engage in a token criticism designed (incorrectly it would seem) to increase their credibility.

In his book The Software Conspiracy Mark Minasi speaks of the difficulties in writing anything with a negative bent. If one does deign to criticise, one can expect to spend the afternoon in the editor's office defending one's position.

It's not just the vibes. It's not just the fact that bashing a company or a product makes readers feel bad. It's more importantly the fact that the hands that feed these publications won't like it, won't stand for it. Most major software companies invest heavily in advertisements with all the major branch publications, and although it may not be expressed in so many words, the journalists get the drift - don't antagonise and risk everyone's job. In a climate where dwindling advertisement revenues have driven e-zine companies either to desperation - or worse, out of business - no one is going to antagonise the people who bring home the bacon.

The hardcopy BYTE was once the only influential IT publication in the world, and its editors were not shy. If a product was good, they said so, but if it was bad, they still said so. Unfortunately, those good times did not last long. As advertisers made it clear they would not stand for negative rhetoric, the BYTE product review was metamorphosed into the BYTE product preview and prefaced by the words of a typical disclaimer. Today it hardly matters anymore, as integrity in product reviews is long since a forgotten issue.

Today it is not enough that advertisers must get glowing reviews for their products - it's essential they be given substantial real estate, no matter the content. And as John McAfee has long since proven, even bad publicity brings in the bucks. A product never mentioned in the press is a product soon forgotten. A marketing campaign involves not only advertising expenditures but also pressuring the media to write about the products. Where would the unknown GRC.com be today if John McAfee hadn't twisted the arms of his friends?

Which is why Internet surfers are increasingly suspicious of what they read. No major publication today is capable of or even willing to give people the truth. Everyone is playing with the Big Money Machine, getting the products out there and seeing the media are saturated by them. Readers don't know where to turn. They're alienated from the get-go. They're not happy. They demand the truth at any price.

Unfortunately the online journalists threw their ethics out the window long ago.

And should the above sound like negative rhetoric, so be it.

At least it's the truth.

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