It's hard to imagine David Pogue's public image going through a worse month than it has in May. First, hewas detained and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly banging his wife, who he's in the process of divorcing, over the head with an iPhone. Then he finds out about the news being made public while speaking at conference about preventing domestic violence. ("I don't think that's appropriate for the forum," he said when asked to comment on the incident.) And then today, The Daily Beast's Dan Lyons reports that Pogue's girlfriend since December is Nicki Dugan, a Silicon Valley PR executive whose company represents many of the products that Pogue's popular New York Times gadget blog reviews. This new story doesn't just make Pogue look bad: Lyons makes a strong case for why the Times is compromised, too, by a glaring conflict of interest.
The official stance from both the gadget guru and his editor at the paper of record is that as long as Pogue doesn't write about companies Dugan is representing, everything is fine. “People have romances all the time,” New York Times technology editor Damon Darlin told Lyons. “He hasn’t written about any companies that she is representing." That sounds like a job for some quick investigative journalism! Nicki Dugan and David Pogue have been dating since December, and so Lyons stacked companies represented by Dugan's agency, OutCast Agency, against companies Pogue has covered since then and bullet-points his findings. We're parahprasing:
- Pogue offered a positive review of OutCast client Amazon in March.
- Pogue said disparaging things about Netflix competitor Zediva also in March. Netflix is an OutCast client OutCast.
- Pogue lauded Bloom Energy in a PBS special in February. Bloom is one of Dugan's clients at OutCast.
- Pogue wrote about Groupon in February and Skype in March. Both are backed by the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, one of Dugan's clients at OutCast.
Now, the apparent connections seem obviously dodgy, but it's unclear if they'd hold up in court. There's no smoking gun, no Pogue post praising a product pitched by Dugan. But as Lyons is careful to emphasize, this sort of proximity to partiality is something that the Times traditionally avoids. Citing a section of the Times ethics policy called "keeping our detachment," Lyons shows that Pogue's conflict of interest isn't clearly spelled out, but precedent at the paper suggests that somebody is cutting the celebrity columnist some slack.
Or maybe Lyons is just grinding his axe. Back in 2009 while writing under the Fake Steve Jobs pseudonym, Dan Lyons took several swings at Pogue and an apparent conflict of interest between Pogue's glowing coverage of Apple and Pogue's side project writing and selling "Missing Manuals" for Apple products. As Fake Steve Jobs, Lyons wrote in August of that year:
Pogue, on the other hand, had to change his underwear after writing his piece. Just to be clear: This is absolutely notbecause David Pogue makes most of his money by writing “missing manuals” and other Mac-related user guides.
No, David is not pushing Snow Leopard because he has two books coming out that can only be purchased by people who are running Snow Leopard. No. He’s pushing Snow Leopard because he’s an honest, scrupulous, first-rate journalist, with the highest degree of integrity and the courage to overlook a few bugs and flaws and speak the truth.
A week later, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt penned a finger-wagging article on the too-close-for-ethical-comfort ties between Pogue's journalism and his help books. Pogue hacked back in September in an interview that the conflict of interest claims were ludicrous. David Pogue is no journalist, he claimed. He's an entertainer. In Pogue's words: "I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career...I try to entertain and inform." Rethinking that statement, Pogue added, "By the way I’m suddenly realizing this is all just making it all worse for myself. The haters are going to hate David Pogue even more now."
Haters, they will hate, but Dan Lyons's malice towards David Pogue is nothing but implied. Or maybe it's as simple as admitted journalist Dan Lyons standing up for his craft. Pogue meanwhile seems to have learned his lesson in 2009 and has kept mum on the whole affair. But don't worry. He'll be fine.