Count Ethics Alarms with those who hope Gawker and its affiliated gadget site Gizmodo get as many books thrown at them as possible if the iPhone theft case gets to court.
As is always the case with Gawker, a completely ethics-free operation that has snickered about its participation in other outrages—such as its “Gawker Stalker” feature allowing people to alert the world to the exact location of any celebrity who is out, you know, trying to live—the sites management is crowing about doing wrong. “Yes, we’re proud practitioners of checkbook journalism,” tweeted Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media. “Anything for the story!” Anything including fencing stolen goods, it seems. Nicely, the law often has a way of making unethical people wish they were more ethical, and this should be an example of that.
If you have somehow missed the story all the gadget geeks are tweeting about, Gawker released a scoop photo spread on Apple’s yet-to-be-released iPhone after an Apple engineer stupidly, carelessly and unethically left a prototype that he was entrusted with in a bar. It was found by someone who understood its value and who it belonged to, and who also had no more scruples than, well, Gawker. That meant that this California law applied…
Any person or any public or private entity that finds and takes possession of any money, goods, things in action, or other personal property, or saves any domestic animal from harm, neglect, drowning, or starvation, shall, within a reasonable time, inform the owner, if known, and make restitution without compensation, except a reasonable charge for saving and taking care of the property.
Of course, unless you were raised by Fagin, you already knew this, didn’t you? If you find something of value that has obviously been lost, you try to return it to the owner. The guy who found the iPhone, however, decided to treat the object as if it was his own, and sell it to some equally unscrupulous person or entity. This is called theft and conversion, and the unscrupulous entity is called Gizmodo.
In California, as elsewhere, paying the individual who offers stolen property for sale is a crime. In California it is called “receiving stolen property,” violating California Penal Code 496 PC. The law applies even if you don’t realize that you have bought stolen goods until after you shelled out your own cash, but here it is obvious that Gizmodo/Gawker knew exactly what it was doing, and didn’t give a damn.
It would have been admirable, of course, if Gawker had demonstrated that it knew would be harmful to Apple and wrong to publicize the features of an unreleased product. It would have been especially admirable if Gizmodo bought the device, returned it to Apple quietly, reported the creep who sold it, and maybe saved the job of the poor fool who left the prototype in the bar. But Gawker Media has developed a culture that sneers at ethics, so having intentionally disconnected all ethics alarms in the house, it wasn’t going to be stopped from making a big splash with lots of hits and links and ad revenue just because doing so was wrong. That made it more likely that Gizmodo would break the law, and so it did.
Well, that’s what happens to unethical cultures like Enron, the Nixon White House, Congress, Goldman Sachs, and Gawker. Eventually the lack of ethics alarms causes the people engulfed in them to break laws.
Sometimes they even learn from it.
Note: The above raises a question from a longtime reader of The Ethics Scoreboard and Ethics Alarms: why doesn’t the iPhone caper guarantee Gizmodo a spot as April’s Unethical Website? The answer is that, rightly or wrongly, I regard the Gawker empire, which consists of more than just Gizmodo, and the gossip-obsessed, rumor-mongering, celebrity-worshiping, ethics-emptying “values” it sprung from and champions to be the real culprits here, not just one website. “Unethical Website,” in other words, is too good for Gawker.