Not everything is ideal as this dry, logical layout of relationship between the media, and consumers of news. In times past, issues were reported in an active voice. The reporter would state, firmly, their opinion on the subject. People were free to disagree, and many did. Out of this conflict and discussion, other people formed their own opinions. And the need for varied information about a topic was met.
Then things changed. The rules governing the reporting of information changed. Hardened. It was no longer apropos to state an opinion, and so the news stopped being reported as if people had one. Each day, people would sit to read the paper or watch the news, and get another large helping of facts. Raw, unfiltered facts. If they formed an opinion, or discussed the news, it was now purely secondary to the act of reading it.
Again, it's not quite like that in the real world. Reporters and columnists, intentionally or not, add a editorial touch to the reports and articles they produce. The biases and ignorantness show through. This is important to know because a lot of people depend on the media for their view of the world. Alter the media, and you alter their view of the world.
Given that the news media was originally a group of people educated on topics which they then wrote and reported on for others (specialisation of the information gathering), you would assume the media would still exist as an entity educated and informed. That way, even if some editorial opinion slipped through, it would be an informed one. Too often this is not the case.
That's why I'm writing this piece. The media, while mishandling a lot of issues lately, has been sorely mishandling one that's dear to my heart -- Linux, and Unix. In many cases, the writer involved has not just mishandled the reporting, they have openly exposed themselves as ignorant about the topic.
You may think this is a bit of sensationalism on my part (sensationalism does seem to generate attention these days), so I'm going to give you some example cases. I'm stating my bias outright that I'm fairly annoyed at these reports, and that I'm going to pull no punches. But I'm being open about this -- you can mail me, find me on IRC, call me up, and I'll tell you the same thing. Keep that in mind, and keep your mind open. I want you, the reader, to think about these cases.
First on the block: Charles Cooper. This is a ZDNet reporter who wrote this piece, a "rumours and comment" page which seems to be used as filler for real content (but that's probably my aggravation talking). The page itself is fairly innocuous (not surprising considering the source), until you stumble upon this nugget half-way down:
"Now that the KDE-Gnome rift in the Linux community is in the open, certain spinmeisters are doing their damnedest to paper over the differences and suggest it's all one big happy family. Wishful thinking."
"I'm a reporter, really!" -- wishful thinking. I'm going to place myself in this fellows shoes for a bit, to try to understand why these rather funny (if not hilarious) comments are issuing forth from his muse.
"Linux -- it's new! It's big! It's the upstart operating system! Lots of stock market stuff last year, and now there've been even more business happenings. What's this? After the Gnome (what's that?) announcement, something called KDE had developers for it write some very, very interesting things about it. Ah-hah! A RIFT! This so called community has always seemed to together, acting like one. But this came outa the blue for me, so it has to be some thing they were hiding! Yeeaaahes! This'll make a great addition to my next column."
And so it was written. An ignorant man, at home or at work, is a dangerous thing when given the tools to communicate and the audience which will listen. From my metaphorical tower atop the hill, I can smile and sit back. "No one will believe this. ZDNet's not a credible source of news; never has been. This is just too obvious to be believed." But it is believable -- to someone unfamiliar with the situation and background. That's why it was written in the first place.
The next article was a lot closer to home (figuratively speaking). Kevin Reichard, who is employed by LinuxPlanet(tm), wrote a piece on IBM's latest version of the AIX operating system (a flavour of Unix). The comment, buried down towards the middle, startled me.
"Interestingly, despite IBM's commitment to the GNOME Foundation, AIX 5L will ship with both KDE and GNOME,"
I had to stop and think, "why would IBM's public statement that they would help the Gnome project, through the recently created Gnome foundation, preclude them including KDE in the distribution?" Just because Microsoft's commitment to Internet Explorer precludes it from including a copy of Netscape and a dialog allowing you to easily change between the two, does not mean that other companies are so restricted.
Now you know I'm annoyed, and you know the source. So I'm going to give you a history lesson. If you don't feel the need to read a few paragraphs about KDE and Gnome, skip to the conclusion. But you're cheating yourself of another thing to talk about around whatever proverbial watering hole you chat at, and you're depriving yourself of a firm opinion on the subject.
KDE was started back in 1996 by a German named Matthias Ettrich. He took a toolkit (which, in the graphical interface system that runs on almost all Unixes, provides the look and operational behaviour of an application) which was (in his opinion) a quality one, that provided the proper features. Enough that he could easily add a few more layers, and allow a whole bunch of applications to work together as one cohesive desktop environment. The K Desktop Environment.
The philosophy of the Unix environment is to provide programs with source, which will fill a niche or perform some required action. Writers spend great amounts of time writing standards for these applications, and programmers spend greater amounts of time implementing them. Instead of providing one single solutions, the programmers often work on programs which perform the same functions as existing ones.
A lot of people see this as duplicated or wasted effort, but it is the computer equivalent of democracy. Applications are developed, and the internals are laid bare for the world. People use the programs, read the code, and eventually decide to use one particular implementation. The important part of this system is that it puts the choice in the hands of the end user.
A year later, a fellow named Miguel de Icaza who was born in Mexico decided to write a desktop environment. This one would be the GNU Object Model Environment, or Gnome. Miguel had different ideas about how the desktop environment should be implemented, and there were some licencing issues which had cropped up with Matthias's choice of toolkit (named Qt) which looked like they would hinder KDE.
If you've ever run into a Macintosh user, you know they want you to become one too. If you've ever mentioned you run Windows to a Linux user, they've probably talked to you about how Linux is different. If you happen to say you're using Linux for your server, some people will come forward to suggest FreeBSD. There are a lot of choices out there. A lot of people who think their choice is the One True Way can be a bit more intense in trying to get you to make the Right Choice. These people are called zealots.
If I were to say a product sucked, and had no reasons to back it up, a lot of users of the product would be upset. They've made the decision to use the product. But the zealots are the ones that would go out of their way to contact me about the statement, maybe even tearing me a new orifice in the process. Every product has a group of zealots to go with it.
KDE had some zealots. Gnome had some zealots. Some of these zealots were angry because of the licencing issues, some were angry because of what the other camp had said. And so a flame war erupted. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the KDE and Gnome developers continued to work on their projects. They even created ways for their respective environments to interact with each other, and started developing standards.
The flame war gradually died down, as such things do. In this time, two years had passed. It was 1999, and Linux was your ticket to riches on the stock market. Reporters who had no experience, nor even heard of the operating system, started reporting on it. Mostly, they gave it a business spin. All they'd ever written before were feature lists and other fluff pieces about the latest offerings from Microsoft or Apple.
That's the end of the history lesson. You should've picked up the competitive nature of Linux doesn't preclude choice. It encourages it. You pick what works best for you, and you use it. It's a software Darwinism, with the strongest surviving. Things that aren't used slowly fade away.
The competitive nature also extends to the ideas. Kernel developers Rik van Riel and Andrea Arcangeli regularly have flame wars about various issues. Even Linus Torvalds, our Great Leader, has given people new holes in their skins. These discussions and harsh words are never hidden, never spun by spinmeisters. You can subscribe to the development mailing lists and read every gory detail.
These mails are written because there is an issue that has to be resolved. When someone believes strongly one way or another, it sometimes takes a lot of force to change their minds. If you have ever seen footage of a certain southern US state with military forces deployed in it just so 6 students could attend high school, you'll understand what I mean.
Now it's the year 2000. 9 years since the birth of Linux, many more since the birth of Unix. You'd probably be considered odd if you called a car a horseless carriage, but that is essentially how most reporters mention Linux. Linux is still called the upstart operating system, and reporters still fail to understand the issues around it. These issues are not recent, and they continue to be mishandled. I hope you understand why I've written this piece.