Archive for May 3rd, 2007

I had a call earlier this week from ABC News. With the trial of Hans Reiser for the alleged murder of his wife scheduled to start next week, the reporter wanted background on the free software community and how Reiser is regarded. Since I wrote an article last summer about Reiser’s struggle to get his work accepted into the Linux kernel, and another one shortly after his arrest about how his company was going to carry on without him, I’m the person from whom the mainstream media is looking for answers. In the past six months, I’ve been interviewed by The Oakland Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and People on the same subject. And, each time, it leaves me with a deep sense of ambiguity.

For one thing, I’ve never actually met Reiser. I only exchanged a few emails while doing my earlier story, and fielded some complaints from him about what I said. For the second story, I also corresponded with his father. But these contacts were brief, and hardly make me an expert. I suspect I’m being called for background mainly because these articles pop up in a Web search, but I hardly feel qualified to give the comments for which I’m asked.

For another, so far as I’m concerned, these stories were only minor parts of my working life. I had some small pride in the first story for its thoroughness and attempts at balance, but neither the Linux kernel nor Reiser’s work on his filesystem are beats that I cover regularly. The second story is especially minor, an update that helped me fill my monthly quota of articles. When I consider the comprehensive articles I’ve done that have been largely ignored, I’m irked that the second one should be the part of my output to receive so much attention.

Most importantly, I have no wish to join the chorus of speculations about the case. In the second article, I made a conscious choice to focus on the technical issues because I thought that to do otherwise would be in poor taste. I don’t even care for mysteries unless they are a facade for a historical novel, so covering or discussing a real life murder is profoundly distasteful to me.

Nor, for the record, do I have any predictions about the outcome. From what I’ve seen and heard about Reiser, I would be no more surprised to hear him declared innocent than to hear him found guilty. I simply don’t know enough about him to form a meaningful opinion. Either way, the case seems like a tragedy for everyone involved – and that’s as far as I care to go.

All the same, I found myself replying to each request for comments in some detail, and I’m still not altogether sure why.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is the implied compliment. Online journalists may have more readers than colleagues in the mainstream media, but we’re not nearly as well-regarded. So, to an extent, I feel that the requests lend legitimacy to my daily work.

Even more importantly, I feel that, if I don’t give a reply, my mainstream colleagues will simply move on to someone with less knowledge of the free and open source software community and less of a sense of responsibility. Since I have a detailed perspective of the community, I honestly feel that I can express the range of reactions better than most people. Hans Reiser is a person whose work is both admired and pilloried, and whose personality often interfers with sober judgment of his accomplishments, and I can point out this range of opinions because, unlike many people, both my job and my temperment keeps me interested yet distanced from the various issues.

But, mainly, I’m simply too damned polite to refuse despite my own ambiguity. So, I talk, but, not so deep down, I keep feeling that being party to the coverage of the case at all is enormously gauche. In fact, there are times I wish I’d never written about Reiser at all. Had I known the consequences, probably I wouldn’t have.

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