An encounter with Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier

MANY people who claim to be part of the so-called free and open source software community paint themselves publicly as open-minded and reasonable people.

As with most things, the reality is often different.

I’ve met more than my fair share of people who consider themselves part of this community as I’ve been writing about these genres of software for nigh on 10 years. There are lots of excellent open-minded and reasonable folk in these circles, but some of those who pose as leaders are often the most biased.

Until January 2009, I had never met Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier. I had occasionally read something which he had written as he has worked in a number of online publications as a technology writer and editor. I always thought of him as a competent and intelligent writer.

In 2008, he took up the job of community manager for OpenSUSE, a GNU/Linux distribution that has been sponsored by Novell, a company that signed a patent deal with Microsoft in November 2006, a deal that was considered a sellout by most of the FOSS community.

Exactly how a journalist can cross over to the world of PR is beyond me. Of course, when one is already doing PR and passing it off as journalism, it is not difficult at all.

In January 2009, at Australia’s national Linux conference, which was held in Hobart, the capital of the island of Tasmania, Brockmeier gave a talk on how, in his opinion, FOSS projects should be publicised.

I was present and wrote it up. I did not agree with many of his recommendations and said so without mincing words.

The conference, an annual affair held in a different city each year, provides wireless internet coverage but it is often patchy as the number of conference rooms is normally spread over an entire university campus. As a result, those who need net access – in my case I can’t work without it – often have to work in certain areas.

But in Hobart, the wireless coverage was super; hence, when I had a backlog of stories to file, I would sit in some lecture theatre or the other and do my work.

I was sitting in one such lecture and writing an article on the day when my piece about Brockmeier’s talk appeared. I suddenly noticed the man himself sitting a few seats away and glaring in my direction. This did not bother me as many people glare at me. I finished my work and got up and left.

Brockmeier came charging behind me. He hailed me and said “You’re XXX aren’t you?” He was perspiring freely and appeared to be very agitated.

When I answered in the affirmative, he asked me which journalism school I had attended. I told him that I had never been to journalism school but had learnt the trade at the stone (that’s what we called the page-making table in the days of lead-type). I also told him that I had been educated in India, while he had been educated in the US and asked him if that really made a difference.

He was taken aback by my frankness and caught on the back-foot; it looked like he was not used to people answering back. He then said that since I disagreed with him about how FOSS projects should be publicised, I should tell him the right way to publicise such projects.

I told him that I had never heard such a silly thing in my life and that I was not going to tell him a thing – it was for him to find out. He then accused me of being innacurate in my report as some things I had reported were not in the PowerPoint presentation which he had used. He said he had been watching me in the theatre from which I had just emerged and noticed that I had not taken a single note.

This again was silly and childish as he had spoken extempore a great deal while his presentation was taking place. I asked him to go back and have a look at a video of his talk before opening his mouth. I also told him that I was not writing anything about the talk that had been going on in the theatre and hence there was no need for me to take notes.

The bluster seemed to go out of him. It was as though a balloon had been deflated. I told him I had no time to waste and started walking away. He walked alongside me, muttering something about nobody liking me because I criticised people in my articles. This, of course, showed that his knowledge of journalism was a big zero and that PR was the right field for him.

Journalists are asked to write about things without fear or favour. In practice, this does not work 100 percent of the time – but if you stick to the rules of the profession even 75 percent of the time, you end up making an awful number of enemies. There are three classes of enemies – those who are pissed that you wrote about them, those who are pissed because you did not write about them, and those who are pissed because you described them as being the co-founder of a company when in reality they are one of four co-founders and came in after the other three.

Journalism is a terribly lonely profession, hence not many people go down this route. I’m talking of the real route. Instead, there is a kind of half-arsed compromise and puff pieces are written to make people happy. Most of it is spin of the most extreme kind.

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