A Tale of Two Press Releases: Big Lies and Objective Journalism

It's not my goal at this blog to nominate myself as the official FUD Ombudsman for the contest between the ODF standard and Microsoft's  Open XML (especially since the connotations of the name "Ombudsman" in this saga ain't what they used to be).  But a press release issued late Monday falls so neatly into the pattern that I wrote about two days ago that I'm not feeling a lot of choice on the matter this morning.  Sadly, the text of that release also points out an unfortunate by-product of "objective journalism"  -  the ability to have outrageous statements broadly disseminated by journalists who feel bound to provide both sides of an issue, but don't have the time to research and report whether the statements are true or false.   

The press release in question was issued by the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), an affiliate of CompTIA, and is titled "Coalition Says Massachusetts' Search for ODF Plug-in Evidences Flaw in Mandate Policy."  The news-based message of the release, as I read it, is that the issuance by the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) of a request for information illustrates that free market dynamics are preferable to imposed technical requirements.  The press release concludes by saying:  "We applaud these and subsequent, market-based developments."   

David Gardner wrote a piece at InformationWeek.com based on the same press release, and titled it "Trade Group Blasts Massachusetts Call for Office Plug-in."  Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on David for getting the formal message wrong, because in fact he got the underlying message regarding the ITD's policy dead on.

According to the same release, the ITD standards policy:   

…never really inched past being one that promotes an open source-only objective.  That is so because it was not designed as anything other than to benefit a handful of special interests.  So-called ‘access to documents’ provided the convenient patina to make it socially palatable.   

There is more in a similar vein, referring to the “previous bureaucrats” who created the RFP [sic]  to be “purposely exclusionary,  being primarily designed to distort the competitive landscape.  It had little to do with access to documents, and everything to do with excluding proprietary software providers.”   This is the ongoing message of ISC: that the ODF policy is bad for business, is the product of unnamed “special interests,” and should be opposed (with the Reds under the Beds being open source advocates). 

So what are the facts, and how does this contrast to the actions of those who favor ODF? 

First, let’s paint in the comparative landscape.  On the one hand, we have ISC, which describes itself as:   

[A] growing global coalition of large and small companies committed to advancing the concept that multiple competing software markets should be allowed to develop and flourish unimpeded by government preference or mandate.  The Initiative actively educates policymakers and regulators worldwide about the benefits of this approach and its value to future innovations.   

CompTIA, its affiliate, describes itself as:   

[A]n association representing the international technology community. Its goal is to provide a unified voice, global advocacy and leadership, and to advance industry growth through standards, professional competence, education and business solutions.   

On the other side, the most directly comparable organization would be the ODF Alliance, which describes itself as follows:   

The alliance works globally to educate policymakers, IT administrators and the public on the benefits and opportunities of the OpenDocument Format, to help ensure that government information, records and documents are accessible across platforms and applications, even as technologies change today and in the future.   

In short, each side has its own advocacy group, formed for the purpose of educating legislators in order to further the goals of its membership.  The impression given by the Websites of the two organizations, however, is that there are some significant differences in what each is all about: the Alliance says that has been formed to influence government as purchasers, while the news page of the ISC clearly indicates that the ISC is more active in trying to influence the votes of legislators. 

Let’s be clear at the outset that each organization has an agenda, is pushing that agenda, and will have no interest in promoting any facts, figures or case studies that are contrary to its cause.  Subject to laws involving disclosure of campaign contributions and the like, each organization is entitled to operate in this fashion.  So neither pot can be calling the other black in principle.    

The question therefore becomes, then, how is each side playing the game?  And is either crossing over the line?   

For our next step, let’s also look at the latest press release issued on May 5 by the ODF Alliance, which is titled, “ODF Alliance Hails Top International Standards Body’s Approval of Open Document Format,” which can be found here.   Like the ISC press release, this one isn’t announcing news of the organization itself, but is instead piggybacking on extrinsic news in order to broadcast its own ongoing message.   

In the case of the ODF Alliance, the news-related message is that ISO/IEC adoption was “sweeping” and “broad,” and will “have a particularly strong impact in Europe where ISO standards enjoy official recognition under European Union Directives.” Taken together with a concurrent conference in Bangkok that will be focusing in part on ODF, the press release states,  indicates that momentum is building on a global basis for adoption of ODF by governments.  The press release further supports the momentum contention by describing the rapid growth of the Alliance itself.   

As with the ISC press release, there is also an underlying message, which is most succinctly delivered in a closing quote by Marino Marcich, the new Executive Director of the Alliance:  “We believe access to public records and essential services should never be restricted to users of a particular brand of software or computer platform.”     In short, that open standards are good, and there are no malfactors (I think that’s only a nine dollar word, David) lurking under the furniture.

Before we get to examining each press release for accuracy of facts and characterizations, let’s do a last quick fill-in by looking at what each press release chooses not to go into.   

On the ISC side, there is the oft-repeated statement in the press (e.g., the InformationWeek article) that CompTIA and ISC are strongly influenced by Microsoft.  I have no independent knowledge on that point and therefore can’t say whether or not such contentions are accurate.  But I also don’t think that it’s particularly relevant, since it’s no secret that major vendors, such as IBM and Sun, are very actively supporting the ODF Alliance, OpenOffice.org and other initiatives that further the cause of ODF.  It is also worth noting that membership in the ODF Alliance is free, making it in some ways more of a rallying point for organizations to indicate their allegiances rather than an association to which they have made a serious monetary resource commitment.   

Similarly, the ODF Alliance press release does not use the words “open source,” although in fact many of its members are open source vendors and supporting associations.  Of course, ODF is implemented in Sun’s StarOffice 8.0 and the IBM’s Workplace Managed Client version 2.6, as noted by Bob Sutor in his blog yesterday.  The open source community is therefore a constituency of the Alliance, rather than the entire membership.   

It is when we get to the specific contentions and facts asserted that the real divergence between the two press releases begins to become clear.  Here’s my cut on what’s inaccurate or unfairly characterized in each press release:   

ISC Press Release:  The “ITD bureaucrats” presented a “stark mandate” (to replace Microsoft Office with ODF compliant software) as the “only viable options for citizens to have access to their data in the future” via a policy created through a “specious administrative process” that has an “open source-only objective” and “is a biased, open-source only preference policy” that will “disserve citizens who demand cost-effective solutions for their hard-earned tax dollars.” 


 –  “Stark mandate:” The ITD did not present a mandate, but a choice to Microsoft: we would be fine continuing to use Office if you decide to support ODF, which Microsoft declined to do.      

 – “Citizen access:”  The ITD policy and supporting FAQ have made it clear for many months that the policy applies only to internal Executive Agency document purposes.   Citizens will never need to own a copy of ODF-compliant software in order to send, receive, or access ocuments in Massachusetts under the ITD policy.  

 – “Specious administrative process:”  While questions were raised by opponents to the ODF policy, a detailed brief was submitted by Linda Hamel, the ITD’s general counsel, detailing the legal basis for the ITD’s action.  There has been no further challenge on this point since it was initially raised in comment letters to the ITD (one from the Association for Competitive Technology, another association that has been associated with Microsoft, and Microsoft itself).      

 – “Special interests:”  One of the grandest traditions of the Big Lie is to speak of dark and dangerous forces, while being careful not to name them.  How do you refute something that cannot be identified?

 – “Open source-only objective:”  During the course of the ITD’s policy the level of interest on its part in open source software fluctuated.  As eventually adopted, the policy recognizes that open source software may often provide the most attractive option, but does not mandate use of open source software or restrict evaluation to open source alternatives.   

 – “Disserve [sic] citizens who demand cost-effective solutions for their hard-earned tax dollars:”  Open source software is no longer a question mark, and has become ubiquitous in major corporations, federal agencies, municipalities and states, none of which pursue high-priced alternatives for the sake of wasting tax dollars.  The City of Bristol in the United Kingdom recently did an exhaustive analysis of StarOffice (a proprietary product requiring payment of license fees), comparing it to Office, and deciding that switching to StarOffice would result in significant savings, even after conversion costs.    

All in all, quite a list of inaccuracies and mischaracterizations, all present in blunt statements as facts.  

ODF Alliance Press Reliance:  “A broad cross-section of associations, academic institutions and industry.”  ODF “emerged” from the open source OpenOffice.org project before migrating to OASIS.      

 – “Broad cross-section:”  The actual number of academic institutions is small.      

  – “Emerged from OpenOffice.org:”  The initial point of origin was a German company that developed an office suite, which was later purchased by Sun, before finding its way into OpenOffice.org.   

As you can see, I was straining pretty hard to find facts or characterizations in the ODF Alliance press release to pick holes in, and what I note above is pretty small beer.  True, there is plenty of what is clearly opinion (e.g., “There’s no doubt that this broad vote of support will serve as a springboard for adoption), but the actual facts cited and characterizations drawn are accurate:  the ISO vote was in fact unusually broad and was unanimous, the Alliance does have over 150 members, ISO/IEC approval does have global significance to many purchasers (and especially government purchasers) whether or not there is more than one approved ISO/IEC standard, ODF was approved by OASIS in May of 2005, and so on.  In contrast, there are few verifiable facts, and many inaccuracies and mischaracterizations in the ISC press release.   

Do read both press releases and form your own conclusions, and if you think I let the Alliance off too easily, or missed something, do call me on it as it’s always possible to get too close to a story you cover for a long time.  To me, though, there is a clear difference in the integrity of the two releases. 

Of course, press releases are exercises in PR, and therefore anyone should always adopt a “reader beware” approach.  But sadly, under today’s journalistic styles, press releases not only generate stories, but also the obligation to quote from them in order to be “even handed,” no matter how outrageous the statements quoted may be.  The result is that false statements are broadcast around the globe without being contradicted in the story itself.    Some inevitably take root, especially when promoted by large marketing budgets.

It’s ironic and unfortunate that what is supposed to be even-handed journalism serves so well to help to spread the Big Lies, and to help them flourish.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

subscribe to the free Consortium Standards Bulletin
(and remember to Buy Your Books at Biff’s)