Since its publication yesterday, Newsweek's huge Bitcoin scoop has proved unsurprisingly explosive both online and offline. A cover story by reporter Leah McGrath Goodman strongly stated that a man who went by the name Dorian Nakamoto was in fact Satoshi Nakamoto, the secretive creator of Bitcoin. But the piece has raised questions about everything from journalistic ethics to whether model trains would make an appropriate apology gift. Amid heavy criticism, however, Newsweek says it's still standing by the story.
Ms. Goodman's research was conducted under the same high editorial and ethical standards that have guided Newsweek for more than 80 years. Newsweek stands strongly behind Ms. Goodman and her article. Ms. Goodman's reporting was motivated by a search for the truth surrounding a major business story, absent any other agenda. The facts as reported point toward Mr. Nakamoto's role in the founding of Bitcoin.
Newsweek's response follows a sharp refutation from Nakamoto, who told the AP that his original words were misinterpreted and that he had not, in fact, even heard of Bitcoin until he was contacted for the article. After chasing Nakamoto through Los Angeles, reporters are still attempting to make contact with him. The Bitcoin community, meanwhile, is trying to get in touch for a different reason: they want to create some kind of happy ending for a reclusive man who has been driven into the public eye.
As of this writing, about 18 bitcoins (over $11,000 at the current rate) have been sent to an address run by a member of the Bitcoin subreddit, who will attempt to deliver them to Nakamoto at the end of the month. "If this person is Satoshi, then the funds are a small 'thanks' and won't make much of a difference," they write. "However, if this person is not Satoshi, then these funds will serve as a 'sorry for what happened to you,' help with medical bills his family is facing, any legal bills they may incur, or anything else." Separately, a group is debating the merits of sending Dorian Nakamoto model trains, listed as one of his hobbies in the Newsweek article. These suggestions have been toned down significantly since yesterday, when popular posts suggested hiring bodyguards or helping with a relocation effort.
Goodman's story opened with an apparent admission by Nakamoto: "I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it ... It's been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection." Beyond that, though, it relied on parallels between the two men, bolstered by interviews with his family, former coworkers, and current Bitcoin lead developer Gavin Andresen. Dorian Nakamoto's political beliefs, alleged computer engineering prowess, periods of unemployment and ill health, and linguistic quirks were all employed in service of the story. In other words, there was plenty for skeptics to pick apart — and that's exactly what happened. The Bitcoin subreddit immediately began its own investigation, pulling in things like poorly-written Amazon reviews to contrast with known Nakamoto writings.
The bigger issue, though, was how far Goodman had gone to expose Dorian Nakamoto's identity. Among other things, the story ran with a photograph of Nakamoto's house in Temple City, complete with a readable shot of his license plate and house number. The address wasn't given, but a single well-constructed Google search could reveal it. Amid harsh criticism, the photograph disappeared, only to reappear not long after. The same removal and reinstatement seemingly happened with a paragraph of the essay. Goodman was alternately praised for her research and castigated for making a man with a quiet, low-profile life vulnerable to paparazzi and potential theft (Satoshi Nakamoto is thought to possess $400 million in Bitcoin.)
2/2 That stuff other "investigative" tech reporters are doing? (Quoting court records and press releases, riffing on tweets?) Not reporting.— Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) March 6, 2014
The Reddit community, with its strong stance against revealing identifying information, quickly claimed the moral high ground. But moderators also worked unsuccessfully to stop Redditors from doxxing Goodman herself in revenge, deleting threatening comments. "Great, I already see the next headlines: Bitcoin users send death threats to Newsweek author," said one member of /r/Bitcoin. "You're doing Bitcoin a terrible service by starting a (counter) witch hunt." The occasional, inevitable misogynist tweet or comment didn't help the cause either, although these were in the vast minority.
Elsewhere online, people were debating the ethics of just reading the article. With its return to print, Newsweek had instituted a new paywall that prevented some from accessing the story, leading them to turn to recaps on other sites or mirrored copies on Reddit. Was this "stealing" an article from Newsweek? Did Newsweek have an obligation to make its controversial story as widely accessible as possible? These questions were at least headed off in its followup statement, which was exempted from the paywall.
Despite Newsweek's statement, it's becoming widely suspected that Dorian Nakamoto was simply an innocent bystander. An account associated with the "real" Satoshi Nakamoto has denied any connection, though it's entirely possible it's now operated by someone else or is a deliberate attempt by Dorian Nakamoto to shake suspicion ("He'll deny everything," his brother said before the story ran.) Either way, the tide has turned against the magazine. "All I can think of is, I'm so glad I'm not the editor of Newsweek," said Tina Brown — who, up until about six months ago, actually was Newsweek's editor.
Update: Goodman has also spoken to Forbes, further explaining the details of her short conversation with Dorian Nakamoto.
Update 2: The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is now corroborating the conversation between Goodman and Nakamoto described in Newsweek. In a statement posted to Forbes, Captain Mike Parker from the Sheriff's headquarters said he spoke with both deputies, who described the quotes as "accurate." The Associated Press also interviewed Parker, who noted that the quote from the deputy about Nakamoto's involvement with Bitcoin came only after Goodman explained why she was there.