How Ars Failed


Nathan Thompson

Warning: please be aware of the off putting nature of the criminal charges to be discussed in this post. I understand the nature of these allegations will be upsetting to many.

Man, with our first commentary post being bittersweet (but uplifting in a way), hard to immediately followup with such a depressing second effort. I usually like to wind my way around a topic, but let us just jump straight into the meat of it!

Ars Technica, a long running technology website, employed Peter Bright as a Technology Editor until May of this year (2019). From a standpoint of qualifications, primarily as the staff Windows/Microsoft guru, and quality of his writing, I can completely understand why the position was granted. Peter Bright's arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from extremely underage minors (pre-pubescent children), I likewise understand and support the reason why Ars Technica has parted ways with their former Technology Editor.

While due process matters of course, I see zero reason to argue for Ars not to part ways with Mr. Bright. Given the nature of the crimes and the fact the accused is being held in custody, there is simply no alternative. However, I do not understand how I only came to read such news two months later and only by chance! If not for Boing Boing's coverage of this shocking news, I would still be in the dark about the incident. Even worse, how did I decide to search the topic? In the comments section within a recent article on Ars Technica regarding a separate, unrelated, solicitation of minor for sexual acts, trial, Ars community members repeatedly posted comments inquiring when Ars was going to make note of the similar Peter Bright situation. Such comments were threatened with moderation and even possible banning of said commenters.

Being completely in the dark on the situation, a quick search on the web brought me to the aforementioned Boing Boing article, one of the disappointingly few mainstream sites that decided to cover this sad affair. I was literally shocked and more than a little angry. To avoid painting a wide swath of individuals with the same brush, I want to stress there is no known connection between the former colleague's actions and the remaining journalists at Ars or any other outlet that formerly employed the accused. I am not willing to go down a route of assigning blame with the old "you should have known" canard. There is no stain that should spread based solely on one person's actions unless there is clear evidence of a cover up of said activity. As I know of no such allegations, let us not disparage everyone tangentially related. Yet, to the crux of my frustration, I simply remain flabbergasted by the lack of a simple notification of the "facts involved" by Ars Technica's remaining editorial team.

Again, due process is important and I can understand an employer being shy about wanting to hammer on someone with overly aggressive coverage pending the outcome of the upcoming trial. Liability could be weird and I confess to not fully understanding how any federal or state statute pertaining to employers would affect Ars' ability to cover the trial of a former colleague. Is it simply the conflict of interest on account of professional/personal relationships between the press outlet and the accused could lend itself to questions of journalistic impartiality? Perhaps the accused had already been let go prior to the arrest, but given Mr. Brights last article was dated May 21, 2019 and the arrest was early June, I could not say for sure the sequence of when and why Ars parted company with the accused. Nevertheless, a simple accountability statement to acknowledge this controversy should have been enough to put to bed any protestations the community may have felt over the lack of full coverage. Perhaps not all, but most users likely would have understood Ars having no further role as a press unit with this particular issue. Instead, the silence has been needlessly harmful to the reputation of this news outlet. Why very few outlets in general have offered any details of the arrest is a separate debate I feel unqualified to tackle and shall not.

Whatever the case, I firmly believe a simple announcement back in June of 2019 would have sufficed. Something along the lines of:

Pursuant to the matter of Peter Bright's arrest on these serious charges, we have cut all ties with our former Technology Editor. On account of our prior professional relationship, we are abstaining from further coverage to allay concerns of any such conflict of interest impeding journalistic impartiality."

Surely such a simple statement would not have crossed any legal or ethical lines?

Bottom line, I am not calling for heads to roll or any boycotts of Ars Technica. My personal course of action is much simpler. For the foreseeable future, I will no longer subscribe to the Ars RSS feed, nor will I visit the website on any regular schedule. Just a personal preference, I simply need some time away to consider my feelings on the lack of response coupled with heavy handed silencing of criticism inside the community. This is not, and I stress not on any level, a first Amendment issue, private business after all. Similarly, there is no larger debate I really want to have about moderation and of what, why, and how outlets publish. Instead, my preference is to pivot to reading more from publications which are not shy to address internal controversy.

Lastly, I do not want to solely discuss controversies and focus on negative coverage on this site. Likewise, I realize this very article could open myself up to a similar critique. "If you hammered on Ars Technica about their lack of acknowledgement/coverage, why not call out outlet a, b, and c for their coverage or lack thereof concerning topic x, y, and z." A fair point. Understandable. I suppose my only preemptive rebuttal would be, I never want readers here to be surprised by my actions or lack of actions pertaining to something about this site and community. Owning up to a controversy is not the worst thing in the world, I hope to live up to such lofty standards (or even basic human decency I suppose) going forward.

I encourage people make a personal vote (not an organized boycott or anything so formal) with their own eyes. If anyone feels uncomfortable about something online, perhaps it is better to find content more suitable for yourself? What makes each individual feel such unease will likely differ from person to person, but that is also okay. Readers do not owe publications anything. We, the publisher provide a service, but the readers decide if that service warrants their time. I am not calling for head in the sand, echo chamber, confirmation bias consumption of media. We should challenge ourselves to hear from people with different opinions of our own. However, there is a time and place to decide what works for your own personal preferences and I support your right, even if we were to disagree on philosophical particulars.