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Why Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin is boycotting CoinDesk’s Consensus 2018

No hero is perfect

Vitalik Buterin

Vitalik Buterin, the kid who created Ethereum (Photo by Romanpoet/Wikicommons).

Many of the biggest players in cryptocurrency and blockchain are set to descend on New York in a couple of weeks for CoinDesk’s Consensus 2018. But there’s one top figure calling on everyone to boycott the event—Ethereum’s wunderkind founder, Vitalik Buterin.

Buterin, who was a panelist at the same event two years ago, took to Twitter to unleash his fury at CoinDesk, which sponsors the annual equivalent of a crypto Lollapalooza.

First, he ripped into them for a technical analysis piece about OmiseGo’s OMG token (which, by the way, was built on the Ethereum platform). Specifically, the CoinDesk piece included links to a scam that claims to be giving away OMG tokens:

CoinDesk markets reporter Omkar Godbole wrote the piece in question. As it is, using technical analysis with cryptocurrency is arguably not the greatest idea, in part because price history is limited. But Godbole made things worse by adding false information from a fake post claiming to be OmiseGo’s official blog. In it, the phony site said OmiseGo was going to “airdrop” 0.3 OMG tokens for every one owned. That’s a classic scam that even newbies know to be on the lookout for, yet a reporter for one of the world’s most prestigious crypto news sites treated it as fact.

This particular con hit home with Buterin, whose Twitter profile name is listed as Vitalik “Not giving away ETH” Buterin. A frequent scam on Twitter involves fake accounts claiming to be Buterin giving away bonus ether tokens to those who buy ETH from a bogus account.

As Buterin pointed out on Twitter, other news sites have been duped, including CCN.com.

CoinDesk, to its credit, removed the offending part of Godbole’s story and added this note:

UPDATE: This article has been updated to remove a link to a fraudulent website that was misrepresenting OmiseGo in an effort scam users. CoinDesk regrets the error.

However, the URL still contains the phrase, “omisego-hits-two-month-high-amid-airdrop-and-exchange-listings,” courtesy of CoinDesk’s content management system, and the featured image is of plastic balls falling, presumably being dropped from the air.

In any event, the damage was done. What’s more, OmiseGo claims CoinDesk’s editorial staff treated them poorly when they brought it to the site’s attention. OmiseGo has now added their voice in support of Buterin’s boycott:

Buterin’s second given reason for boycotting Consensus 2018 had to do with CoinDesk’s coverage of the proposed Ethereum Improvement Protocol (EIP) 99. That proposal would free up roughly 513,000 ETH (worth about $329 million as of Thursday) in 580 wallets of the Parity Library Contract. Those wallets were frozen after a bug written by a new developer back in November.

On Wednesday, CoinDesk published a piece about it, written by Rachel-Rose O’Leary. Buterin wasn’t pleased with it or its tone:

 

The lead sentence in O’Leary’s piece originally read, “Ethereum may be on verge of a blockchain split.” It has since been replaced with the more subdued, “Ethereum appears to be at a notable crossroads on technical direction.”

Ethereum developer Péter Szilágyi responded to an inquiry from O’Leary but they weren’t in the original piece. According to Buterin:

Szilágyi went on Twitter to show what he originally wrote O’Leary:

But according to O’Leary, that response wasn’t received until several hours after the piece was published.

Buterin would have none of it:

An update note now appears at the top of the piece, reading:

“UPDATE: Since publication, major ethereum community members have expressed an interest in working to find solutions that would avoid an inability to reach consensus. These include principal players ParityTech, and key community members Golem Project and developer Peter Szilagyi, whose statements are linked.”

Buterin then took aim at CoinDesk’s editorial policies. Specifically, the issue of when someone speaks or emails to its reporters requesting to be “off the record”:

CoinDesk, like most news organizations, won’t allow things to be “off the record” unless its reporters accept the term.

The Associated Press wrote this wonderful explanation of how it all works and the different terminology used, such as “on the record,” “off the record,” “on background,” and “on deep background.” An important point is that a reporter and the source have to come to an agreement first as to how they will interact.

For instance, if the CEO of a firm were to email a reporter and say, “This is off the record but I’m using Ethereum smart contracts to manage a cocaine smuggling ring and hire hit men to eliminate my enemies,” it wouldn’t be off the record because the sender didn’t give time to the reporter. Instead, the CEO would have to say, “Can I speak and email you something off the record?” The reporter could then say, “No, you may not” and the CEO would know not to then blather about using Ethereum to track kilos and body bags coming out of Medellin.

What this complaint shows is that Buterin, though a genius technologist, is not familiar with standard journalistic practices.

And, perhaps, much of Buterin’s reasons for boycotting Consensus 2018 are a little on the melodramatic side.

Reporters have been duped before. Sometimes, it’s because the reporter is lazy but sometimes, it’s because a scammer may be so exceptionally good that it would be reasonable to assume they were telling the truth. To be sure, it’s the responsibility of the editors and management to make sure structures are in place to reduce such risks. Will things fall through the cracks? Sure, but a solid editorial team should make it few and far between.

As well, reporters work on deadline and do their best to cover stories as they happen. They can’t be expected to wait for every single source to respond only when it’s convenient for the source. Reporters try to get stories out at a reasonable pace and they can’t be expected to tell every single detail of a story in one shot. Stories change. They move through time. More information is gathered and then reported. That doesn’t excuse sensationalizing events or portraying sentiment differently than what’s really going on.

But there’s a tradeoff journalists face trying to get every detail out versus supplying information to the public as quickly as they can. Buterin asked, “Seriously, is speed really that much more important to you than accuracy?” Obviously, no, but covering the minutiae sometimes isn’t as important as getting some of the facts out to the public in a timely manner. Otherwise, we’d still be waiting for news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The problem of many young tech CEOs (and celebrities and politicians and celebrity politicians) is that they aren’t all that familiar with how a news operation works. They may have strong opinions on how they should work but if they’ve never covered a story, followed leads, and explained to people what’s going on, they have no clue how things actually get done.

Instead, they end up being overtly hostile and blaming “the media” like it’s a behemoth, singular organization. We see this on social media like Facebook and Twitter all the time, when elected leaders complain that “MSM” is lying about this or that and relentlessly harangue and insult reporters to millions of people. We see it at political rallies, when reporters are harassed and assaulted. We see it when people walk around with tee-shirts reading, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” We see it when politicians lose elections they were supposed to win and write memoires blaming the media. It’s universal and its source is ignorance.

Is CoinDesk perfect? No. If it were, there would be no need for competitors and other crypto news sites like, say, Modern Consensus. But they’ve done a tremendous amount of work informing and educating the world on what’s going on in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

Their Consensus event is a positive contribution to bringing people together to exchange ideas, meet, and build new things. That shouldn’t be boycotted but encouraged. CoinDesk may have to get a “needs improvement” note on its report card every now and then, but it’s in no need of getting suspended or expelled from school.

Vitalik Buterin is one of the true heroes of the crypto world. At just 24 years old, he has already spent years revolutionizing one of the most important technological projects undertaken in decades. Yet no hero is perfect, either. At some point, he will face criticisms that he will find unfair and unforgiving. That’s what happens to most geniuses of his stature. Perhaps it will be then that he will understand that his criticisms of others may have been a little too much and too harsh.

His last point, though, is definitely hard to argue:

C’mon, CoinDesk. Can’t you make it a little cheaper to attend?

Lawrence Lewitinn, CFA is editor in chief of Modern Consensus. Disclosure: Lewitinn owns no cryptocurrencies in his portfolio.