Last year, Vanity Fair contributor Michael Joseph Gross was accused of embellishing stories about Sarah Palin. In politics, of course, the issues are often colored by emotion. But now Gross faces charges from a famously methodical, and extremely pissed, computer scientist.
The hacker world has been set abuzz by a blog post from one of Gross' sources, a German software security researcher named Ralph Langner. Langner, with his team of virus hunters, was the first to identify the now famous Stuxnet virus as a U.S. cyber attack targeted at the Iranian nuclear program. He was also a prominent subject of a lively April Vanity Fair story written by Gross, who portrayed Langner as a wine-swilling dandy who brags about his Dolce & Gabbana shoes, hopes to score a blonde California girlfriend, and who asks questions like, "Did you notice, yesterday I wore ostrich?"
For example, Gross, who may be unfamiliar with the dress code for German consultants, began to show a bizarre interest for selected fashion items. He wants to hold my wrist watch, inspects it thoroughly and asks if it is a famous brand or particularly expensive. It is not. Then he grabs my tie (literally) and turns it around to see the brand label. It's a no-name product, again. Next he inquires about my shirt. Again, a no-name product...
It happens that my shoes are from a well-known Italian designer. He follows his hot trace and asks which shoes I wore the day before, the ones with that particular structure, and asks about the material. I say, let me think — I believe it were the ostrich shoes. I see Gross' face taking on a weird look as if I had said something obscene or if he had just experienced sudden intestinal problems, but don't give it any significance. In his article, this bizarre episode reads: "My preference is for Dolce & Gabbana shoes," he says. "Did you notice, yesterday I wore ostrich?", turning reality completely around.
Langner goes on to recount other instances in which, he says, Gross writes against reality, including one in which Gross plied Langner with drinks and tried to convince him how much the Vanity Fair story will help his career, and that he should consent to or supply a photo. Langner asks to be mentioned by name only briefly, saying he is trying to make people aware of Stuxnet, not of his own personality. Then, the trap:
I confess that I'm a great admirer of [VF photographer] Ann Leibowitz [sic] and for long had wanted her to portray me. So I say jokingly that the only benefit I could see for myself is to have Leibowitz [sic] take a crispy shot of me for the cover page, which could eventually one day even help in attracting American women (I'm single). Not even Gross can view me as so stupid to think I would actually believe to go on VF's cover. Nevertheless, Gross writes: "Langner loves the attention that his theories have gotten. He is waiting, he says, for "an American chick," preferably a blonde, and preferably from California, to notice his blog and ask him out." He says this about the person who researched the most technical facts on Stuxnet's payload, in weeks of hard labor, who had told him verbatim more than once that he is NOT interested in getting attention. It is simply disgusting.
Of course, conflicts between journalists and their sources are not new. What has changed is that, one, sources can now vent their frustration online. This has been the case for more than a decade now. But, also, every year more and more sources are actually using their ability to push back, and some, like Langner, have both the credibility and writing skills to be quite effective at it. And there's an increasingly fertile eco-system for this citizen media crit. At the moment, Langner's blog post is on the front page of Silicon Valley nerd hub Hacker News, and most of the commenters haven't been too kind to Vanity Fair.
That's damaging not only to Gross' April story on Langner but to past work of his that has been called into question, including a September 2010 profile of Sarah Palin. After Politico talked to several outspoken critics of the piece, including a source who claimed to have supplied Gross a story that was "embellished almost beyond recognition," the writer issued a blog post correcting one thing he had written while defending others. There's not yet been any such post on the Stuxnet article. Then again, it may not be quite as easy for Gross to explain this one away.