[This piece ran in the December 9, 2012 edition of the New York Times.]
Late last month, the editor in chief of Vice magazine, Rocco Castoro, joined by a photographer, Robert King, managed to secure a plum exclusive: an invitation to travel along with the fugitive tech millionaire John McAfee.
Years earlier, Mr. McAfee had relocated to a Colonel Kurtz-like compound in the jungles of Belize, surrounding himself with armed guards and multiple young lovers. Then, with reports that he was a “person of interest” in the death of a neighbor, Mr. McAfee had gone on the lam. Last Monday, after several days of surreptitious travel, Mr. Castoro and Mr. King posted their first dispatch. It bore the smirking headline, “We Are With John McAfee Right Now, Suckers.”
The gloating was short-lived, however. Within minutes, a reader noticed that the photograph posted with the story still contained GPS location data embedded by the iPhone 4S that took it, and sent out a message via Twitter: “Check the metadata in the photo. Oooops …” Vice quickly replaced the image, but it was too late. “Oops! Did Vice Just Give Away John McAfee’s Location With Photo Metadata?” a Wired.com headline asked. The article included a Google Earth view of the exact spot the picture had been taken — poolside at the Hotel & Marina Nana Juana in Izabal, Guatemala.
Soon, the Guatemalan police were with John McAfee. This weekend, he is in their custody and is expected to be extradited to Belize, where he faces questioning in connection with the murder of Gregory Faull, a 52-year-old American who was his neighbor. Mr. McAfee’s lawyers are appealing his extradition.
The Vice debacle was just one colorful twist in the relationship between the press, which is always willing to indulge a colorful subject, and Mr. McAfee, who was always eager to bend news coverage to his often inscrutable ends. I first wrote about Mr. McAfee five years before, when he was merely a colorful software pioneer — an apparently clean-living citizen who courted the press mainly to promote his favorite pastime, flying ultralight aircraft. Since then, his life had taken several darker turns. I had only just published a long piece about his purported connections with Belizean drug gangs on the Web site Gizmodo when I received a curt e-mail from a police official in Belize on Nov. 11, “It may interest you to know that there was a murder yesterday in San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye and McAfee is the prime suspect.”
I passed the information along on Twitter and on Gizmodo and the news took on a life of its own. “It was on all kinds of Tumblr sites, people were talking about it on Twitter, and that fueled a lot of the professional media to say, ‘O.K., everyone’s talking about this, we should have a story on it, too,’ ” said Mat Honan, a senior writer at Wired who has written about the case.
Mr. McAfee went into hiding with a 20-year-old girlfriend, but it was hiding of a uniquely visible kind. Within 36 hours, he began an aggressive campaign to court and spin coverage of his story. He started by calling Joshua Davis, a Wired writer who had spent the summer reporting on a profile for the magazine’s January issue, and fed him fresh details of life on the run every few hours. Mr. Davis passed along his minute-by-minute updates via Twitter and daily blog posts.
News media around the world were rapt: it wasn’t just that Mr. McAfee’s name was stubbornly familiar, a relic of the early days when computer users installed his software to keep viruses away. “A tech millionaire, an exotic Central American locale, murder, the possibility of drugs — the story just has everything,” says Nathalie Malinarich, world editor of the BBC News Web site.
Wired had a problem, though. The murder and Mr. McAfee’s flight had made Mr. Davis’s print article obsolete before it could even hit newsstands. Wired and Mr. Davis updated the material and repackaged it into an e-book that has sold more than 22,000 copies, at one point reaching No. 1 on the Nonfiction Kindle Singles list.
Mr. Davis’s exclusives did not last long. As the week went on, Mr. McAfee granted phone interviews to more reporters (though none to me, with whom he’s declined to communicate since my first Gizmodo piece). Then he set out to spread his message across new electronic platforms. He started a Twitter account and, with the help of a cartoonist he had befriended in Seattle, a blog. To keep the story fresh, Mr. McAfee kept upping his media exposure and the outrageousness of the tales he told. He arranged face-to-face interviews— a Financial Times journalist first, followed by CNN’s Martin Savidge. (Both were told to wait in public places and then were driven to meet Mr. McAfee in locations unknown to them.) Then, in the ultimate act of bravado, he invited Vice’s journalists to tag along.
For reporters, a McAfee exclusive guaranteed a rich share of readers and viewers and social-networking interest. But many found the favor an ambiguous blessing. Mr. McAfee seemed to understand the dynamics of journalism well enough to know which assertions reporters would pass along without double-checking or qualifying — like his claim that he had eluded the police by burying himself in sand and positioning a box over his head — even as his self-created narrative veered ever further into the surreal.
“As soon as reporters start to think, ‘Wait a minute, we’re sort of jeopardizing our objectivity and reputation for this guy,’ he’ll just burn them, and go to the next one,” says the Gizmodo writer Joel Johnson, who found himself cut off after publishing an article Mr. McAfee did not like. “That’s what he did to me, that’s what he’s done to a lot of journalists, and he’s going to do it to the Vice guys, if he hasn’t done it already.”
Vice seemed to remain in Mr. McAfee’s good graces even after the freedom-endangering gaffe. After the secret of his location spread across the Internet, Mr. McAfee quickly went online to claim that the data leak was in fact an intentional piece of misdirection. Mr. King, the Vice photographer, supported the claim on social media. This amounted to following up an “egregiously stupid action with a far worse one,” Mr. Honan wrote in a Wired post later last week, “King apparently lied on his Facebook page and Twitter in order to protect McAfee.”
In a statement, Vice said it would not comment about its reporting in the McAfee case.
“The flight we chronicled was from the start filled with misinformation, rumors, social-media-fed myths, outright lies and overall total weirdness,” the magazine said. “Despite many media outlets’ obvious glee in damning us immediately, Vice has decided to wait and talk to the people on our team who were actually on the ground and who could therefore tell us what actually went down and not just buy into the same rumors, myths and madness that this story has consisted of from the start.”
Indeed, while Mr. McAfee seems determined to drag out his drama as long as he can, some of the journalists who have covered him say they have had enough. “People try to behave ethically,” said Mr. Johnson, who wrote his final post on Mr. McAfee three weeks ago. “And he milks that out of them until they get to the point where they’re like, ‘You know what, you’re just nuts.’ ” He adds, “I know as a journalist I can’t say that, so I’ve got to get out of this story.”