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Net watchdogs criticize Time's timing

Rumors swirl that Time magazine cut a deal to break news about the latest iMac, with suspicions heightened by the stacks of the cover issue Apple had on hand at its announcement.

Much as CNET News.com prides itself in providing "tech news first," we Canadians have admired our own tendency to beat the competition to the punch.

According to one compatriot, Canada was the first to produce (partial list): degradable plastics, oil wells, the 911 CPR training dummy, a national commercial satellite telecommunications system, synthetic insulin, the streetcar, the snowmobile, the paint roller, standard time, the zipper, kerosene, pulp newsprint, the dental mirror, basketball, baseball, in-line skating.

In other words, you might say, pretty much everything useful since Eve invented applesauce a few days following the dawn of human history.

This past weekend, Canada was first again with TimeCanada.com's breathtaking scoop on the new Apple desk lamp, which many think may double as a desktop computer.

TimeCanada.com was so swift with the news, which broke on the Web site Sunday night, that it even beat parent publication Time magazine in the United States.

This was a great coup, notwithstanding the fact that it preceded a strict Monday noon embargo agreed upon between Time and Apple as a condition for letting Time break the story--a deal that had forced the publication to put off its usual Sunday Web site updates.

Bear in mind: The iMac story was no ordinary scoop. With Apple aggressively hyping MacWorld Expo, fan and news sites had spent weeks scrambling to get the skinny on the company's plans, only to come up completely empty-handed. Some of the shadier sites opted to publish their own "news," complete with movies and photos (apparently doctored) of new products. One site went so far as to publish a list of new Mac prices that had clock speeds well above what Apple eventually introduced.

As Sunday evening crept on with no update at the Time.com site, rumors swirled that the magazine had cut a deal with Apple, a theory that was all but confirmed when curious Mac fans called up TimeCanada.com.

Although Apple PR was burning a hole in Time's ear complaining about the embargo breach, the appropriate TimeCanada.com staff could not immediately be reached, so it took several hours to make the story go away. The solution consisted of redirecting general traffic to Time.com, which made the story harder to find, although anyone who typed in the exact URL could still call it up.

In the meantime, word had quickly spread, allowing news outlets including News.com to post their own stories the day before Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the wraps off the new iMac in front of a packed house at MacWorld on Monday.

In what might be considered an understatement, one Time editor called the TimeCanada.com debacle "a mistake."

"Someone didn't get the message about that embargo," said Steve Koepp, deputy managing editor at Time Magazine U.S., which is run by AOL Time Warner. "It was an accident. We did not do that on purpose, as shown by the fact that we fixed it as soon as we could."

Some have suggested that the cover story was the result of a quid pro quo--a suspicion that was heightened by the stacks of the cover issue Apple had on hand during Monday morning's announcement.

Another layer of intrigue was detected in the magazine's adulatory tone, prompting conspiracy theorists to point out that the story came just weeks after Apple switched the default home page on the Mac to AOL Time Warner's Netscape.com.

"Flat-out cool!" the cover boldly declared at the unveiling, although the product has drawn a mixed response from tech watchers since.

In its online treatment, the company went even further, drawing barbs from some media critics who said Time came uncomfortably close to crossing the line that divides editorial and advertising.

The package includes a pitch for readers to "Buy the iMac" in a list of "Related Links," taking readers directly to a pre-ordering page on Apple's Web site. Meanwhile, a "Gallery" of product shots (courtesy of Apple) includes gushing descriptions of the computer's features. iMac's iMovie software, Time says, is "capable of making anyone a Spielberg." A typo in another blurb saying consumers can easily "cropt" digital photos provoked questions about the source of the copy.

"The ethical rules for online journalism are still taking shape, but when they finally do take shape I hope stuff like this is considered out of bounds," said Michael Hoyt, executive editor of media watchdog Columbia Journalism Review. "The article that assesses a product ought to have some distance from the cash registers."

Time's Koepp denied that the magazine promised Monday's cover in advance. He also called the charges of bias baseless.

"We thought it was a good story," he said. "It's an intriguing story, and that's why we covered it, and we stand by the balance of it."

Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Time.com, defended the Gallery, saying the photos were provided by Apple but Time wrote the accompanying text. He also said the link to Apple's store was appropriate, saying that the company has included similar links in past stories. For example, when Time.com published an excerpt from Stephen King's new novel, the online publisher had an e-commerce deal with a bookseller to link to a purchase page for the book, Trippet said.

"We often place relevant links along with stories on our Web site," he said. "It has nothing to do with them advertising with us or not." New Year's resolution for Rumor Mill readers: Break an embargo a day, and send your rumors my way.