Markoff, I Wish I Could Trust Thee

Trouble: John Markoff has been doing tech stories for the New York Times since the beginning of days, so it’s likely he’s written something you’ve read and enjoyed. But he’s also written a number of wrong or counterfactual stories that he makes little or no apology for. At the core of the claims against him is his coverage of Kevin Mitnick, the accused cyber-criminal who was held for over four years — including eight months in solitary — without a bail or sentencing hearing. Though accused of millions of dollars of theft and damages as well as intrusion into government computing systems, little or no evidence ever surfaced to support the claims and he was finally let go on a plea bargain that included time served plus 18 months. The documentary Freedom Downtime reports the “hacker” world’s response to the story and includes interviews with Markoff, who defends his works and his misrepresentations throughout.

Markoff was the Time’s leading journalist on the case, and in that role he echoed the accusations and rumors with glee. These were the years before the use of anonymous sources and unverifiable tips had become so controversial, and Markoff took full advantage of it. Thing is, Markoff’s stories were easy to read, were full of intrigue, and sold. He co-wrote Takedown and Cyberpunk (read the Amazon user reviews), which were well received as literary works, but heavily criticized as works of journalism and non-fiction.

So I’m conflicted about his new book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer. With so many reasonable and supported claims of factual errors in his previous work, and so little contrition or regret about them on his part, how can I trust this story to be true? I like some of the quotes, I like the subject area, and I’d want to read it if the author didn’t carry so much baggage. I’d read it if I thought I could do so without needing to independently fact check every claim.