Last week, ABC’s 20/20 ran a piece on the murder trial of Hans Reiser, the free software developer accused of murdering his wife in Oakland. I sighed in relief when it ran, because it didn’t include me.
It could have. Since I wrote one piece last year about Reiser’s problems with getting the Reiser4 filesystem accepted into the Linux kernel and another about what was happening with his company in the wake of the murder charges, I’ve fielded eight or nine requests from the mainstream media to talk about the background to the case. Since early summer, several of those requests were from ABC. But I never really felt comfortable doing so, although I made clear that I had no opinion one way or the other about the case, and only talked about Reiser’s work and reputation and what the free software community was like.
At the time, I rationalized my general comments as helping out other journalists. Also, considering that I’ve made a career out of explaining developers to non-developers, I figured that I might be able to see that the community wasn’t too badly misrepresented. And, let’s be honest, I was flattered.
But, simultaneously, I was uneasy, and this uneasiness continued to grow as ABC continued to talk to me. There was even talk of flying me down to San Francisco for a day to do an interview, which provoked a kind of Alice in Wonderlandish feeling in me. Spend the day travelling for something that I wasn’t that interested in? And going to San Francisco – one of my favorite cities – with no time for wandering around struck me as not worth the sense of self-importance such a trip would no doubt give me.
I tried suggesting other people in the free software community that ABC might contact. I even suggested one notoriously egotistical person, figuring that they would be pleased to be asked and would give ABC so much copy that its reporters would have no further need of me.
That only worked for a few weeks, then I received another phone call. At that point, I realized that I didn’t have a valid passport, which Canadians like me now need to fly to the United States. I explained this difficulty to a reporter, and how I didn’t really want the extra hassle of driving across the border and catching a flight in Bellingham – and he returned the idea of flying a camera crew up to Vancouver to talk to me.
I thought that unlikely, so I said that would be acceptable. For a while, I was worried that ABC might actually do it, too, but in the end the producers decided not to bother.
That was just as well, because in the interim, I had resolved to refuse the interview regardless of the condition. I took a while to understand my reluctance, but, what I concluded in the end was this: I didn’t want to feed my self-importance at the expense of the Reiser family. No matter what actually happened, those involved in the case are in a world of pain, and I didn’t want to piggyback on that pain for petty personal reasons.
And, ultimately, my reasons would be personal. No matter how well I can explain the free software community to the public, I’m far from the only one who can do so.
With this realization, I felt such relief that I knew that I had made the right decision. Now, I only hope that I can remain as sensible if someone contacts me about the case again.