Bitcoin journalism stoops to new low with Newsweek’s Nakamoto ‘scoop’

Andrea Castillo Program Manager, Technology Policy Program at Mercatus Center
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On Thursday morning, to great fanfare, the struggling Newsweek rose from the grave to announce the discovery of the Holy Grail of Bitcoin reporting: the identity of the mysterious creator Satoshi Nakamoto. Featuring the crack reporting of Leah McGrath Goodman, the cover story of the troubled magazine’s brave return to print fingered one Dorian S. Nakamoto, a 64-year-old Japanese-American engineer and model train enthusiast, as the millionaire mastermind behind the cryptocurrency. They are spectacularly wrong, but the media can’t resist a spectacle.

Here is the solid case on which Newsweek bet its vaunted resurrection. A charming photo of the perp’s personal residence and license plate number accompanied evidence unfit for even a high school newspaper: thin circumstantial supports like D. Nakamoto’s preference for privacy, Asian ancestry, secrecy among his family, and a similar name are stretched and weaved with gossamer contortions to fit a 4,000-word boilerplate narrative. Obsessive, secretive computer nerd? Check. Skeptical of government? Check. Kind of an asshole? Check.

Goodman builds this recognizable stereotype of a movie hacker and then expects us to believe that the same irrationally cagey crypto-anarchist who bonded with his daughter through no-knock raid cosplaying sessions tied his given name to his side-project to disrupt our global financial system. In Goodman’s world, it is perfectly sensible that someone who wishes to remain anonymous would choose their own name before using such a “distinctive pseudonym.”

These inconsistencies mattered little to the watchdogs of our democracy. Gutter journalists as well as those who should know better uncritically praised the reporting and accepted the claims as established fact from the start. A vague statement from D. Nakamoto that “I am no longer involved in that” — which more sober minds might interpret as a reference to his previous government contracting work — proved compelling enough proof to prompt the pluckier underlings of the Fourth Estate to undertake a high-stakes car chase through the greater LA area in hot pursuit of the purported programmer.

Over a free lunch with the lucky AP reporters who got to him first, D. Nakamoto later denied having anything to do with Bitcoin, claiming he had only heard of the technology three weeks ago when Goodman first started sniffing around his family. More doubt was cast on Newsweek’s big scoop later that night when an account known to be used by the real Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009 posted a message simply stating, “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.” Newsweek, for now, foolishly stands by the story based on Goodman’s (unsubstantiated) claim that D. Nakamoto “definitely acknowledged Bitcoin” when she met him and is now simply “confused.”

This predictable clustercuss highlights some alarming problems with Bitcoin reporting specifically and sensationalistic journalism in general. For one, the frenzy belies an unhealthy media obsession with identities over ideas. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto is ultimately irrelevant to the Bitcoin project, which is ruled by protocol rather than by man.  As core developer Jeff Garzik writes, “Bitcoin is everyone who uses it.” It will run as designed with or without its maker at the helm.

Curious minds are right to ponder Satoshi’s identity, and perhaps one day we will know exactly who to thank. Cryptologists and programmers more hip to the scene have floated several good faith theories in the past, and many remain open cases. However, too many media toadies who take up the task do so to in an attempt to discredit the idea of Bitcoin by first discrediting the man behind it. They will fail at this too, but they signal their ugly motivations in the process.

More insidiously, this brouhaha reveals the naked unethical depths to which journalists will stoop to rustle up some transient buzz for their pathetic publications. Goodman’s evangelical ambition to “unmask” a shadowy antihero outweighed any doubts she may have had about unceremoniously harassing and exposing a private man’s life, home, and family on such scant evidence. Goodman, Newsweek, and all but a few observant journalists simply do not appear to care that this runaway case lacks solid proof. Indeed, a witch hunt does not require any.

The journalistic burden is now placed on Dorian Nakamoto to prove that he is not Satoshi. Any action he takes will be interpreted to fit the filter of the established narrative. Some will remain unconvinced until the real Satoshi Nakamoto emerges and signs his PGP fingerprint in person. Given the warm welcome this lay Satoshi received, I will not bet my bitcoins on this happening.

Dorian Nakamoto will eventually return to his quiet life after this bizarre saga loses steam, but the cynical hunt for Satoshi Nakamoto will likely never end. Let’s hope he is never found.