Gizmodo Scoop Feels Dirty, but Home Search Crossed Line

News Analysis: Although Gizmodo editor Jason Chen may not have done the most ethical thing by paying $5,000 for an AWOL prototype of the next iPhone, the California task force that forced open his door in apparent violation of the terms of its search warrant (to say nothing of state law) just turned his case into a test of journalistic freedoms.

Legend has it that one of the first things taught in journalism school is that an honest journalist never pays for a story. I suppose that's true, but you see, I never went to j-school. Does that let me off the hook?

I can argue either side of whether checkbook journalism is ethical, or if technology blog Gizmodo was right to buy the iPhone 4G prototype from its finder. But I know what feels like the right thing to do with a story, and page views don't enter into the calculation.

Here's one part of this business that sticks in my craw: Gizmodo turned itself into a receiver of misplaced property when it paid $5,000 for the wayward prototype. In my mind, that's somewhere between a pawn shop and a fence.

But two wrongs don't make a right, either. The second wrong took place on Friday night, April 23, when a "Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team" based out of the Silicon Valley suburb of Campbell, Calif., forced open the front door of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen while he was out to dinner with his wife. According to a copy of the search warrant posted on Gizmodo April 26, the warrant was issued at 7 p.m. PT on Friday. The police went through the door shortly after, and the Chens returned to their home at about 9:45 p.m., in the middle of the search. The officers concluded their search about 10:30 p.m., and left with much (if not all) of the Chens' electronic equipment, which was seized as evidence.

The REACT task force delivered a chilling message to journalists: The provisions of California's evidence and penal codes that protect journalists from having their property confiscated by search warrant for activities directly related to their work mean nothing when you can find a sympathetic judge.

But, one may ask, what should Gizmodo and Chen have done? Well, it doesn't take a j-school ethics course to figure it out, just a decent set of values. I would have done something similar to what I did several years ago when I found a pretty nice (for the time) mobile phone while crossing the street at Second and Folsom in San Francisco.

As I remember, I looked in the phonebook for something like an entry for "Home." Nothing there, so I tried the list of recent calls. When I got through to someone, I introduced myself and suggested that they contact whoever the phone's owner might be, in order to arrange a return. It might have taken me the better part of a weekend to track down the actual owner, and another day or two to hand back the property, but I felt better for having made the effort.

Admittedly, the situation with the wayward prototype isn't exactly the same; since the device had been locked by Apple after its loss, there was no way for Gizmodo to glean any information from it to facilitate any person-to-person handoff.

Yes, Apple probably could and should have found a way to put up a red flag on this device to encourage the original finder (who, to his credit, apparently tried to contact the company before the prototype got into Gizmodo's hands) to do the right thing. It seems to me that if you can do a remote wipe or lock, you can also put up a "reward for return" screen, even if that's a feature you don't necessarily want to have active in the final device.

Back to what I would have done: Once I'd determined that this was a genuine Apple prototype (as opposed to a counterfeit or knockoff) I would have placed a call to our company's lawyer, asking that person to contact Apple's legal department. I would have made an unintrusive inspection of the device to determine that it was the real McCoy before that call, not wanting to waste our lawyer's time. But breaking out the screwdrivers? That would never have crossed my mind.

Now, I cheerfully admit that I would have used what I'd gleaned from that unintrusive inspection in my reporting, but I'm a naturally cautious type; I would have waited until the device was in the hands of counsel before I actually published what I'd learned. By publishing first, and waiting for Apple's lawyers to contact them, Gizmodo and its owner Nick Denton made themselves the story. As I recall, that's another cardinal sin in this business. For some of us, that's even worse than paying for a story.

Denton would probably say I'm part of the problem with journalism-that I'm just not interested in providing my readers with breaking news. Well, I've done a tour of duty in the newsroom, and I love scooping the competition; it's the same way I feel when Northwestern beats Iowa. But there's a right way and a wrong way to break a story. To claim (as Denton did) that "our only obligation is to our readers" tells me that in his world, page views drive morality. So my question is: When does Gizmodo start hiring hackers to break into corporate e-mail accounts in pursuit of the next scoop?

I suspect that Denton would disagree with this characterization, and since he is far richer than I am, his opinion probably matters more than mine. But I know what feels right, and this business with the iPhone prototype feels so very wrong.
The really tough part about all of this is that, thanks to the apparently illegal search and seizure, I'm now firmly on the side of Chen and his employers. I may not like the way that they handled the story, but they're entitled to the same protections that apply to every member of the press. By infringing on those protections, the police officers of REACT dealt a serious blow to the basic principles of law and order.

Editor's Note: This story was revised on April 27 to remove references to the search supposedly being conducted outside of the times permitted by state law. Follow up research on the relevant state law showed the search was conducted within the permitted times.