What Anti-Tech Bias Looks Like
Look, I’m biased. Many of my friends and clients work in tech.
This has never stopped me from writing negative things about tech companies when/where I think there is something worth criticizing
Writing those things hasn’t stopped tech companies from hiring me
Writing those things is often why they reached out
There’s no real tension there. To the degree that one takes pains to offer criticisms that are precise and thoughtful and well-supported, many will find value in them.
I’ve spoken to a lot of tech leaders about journalism, often in raw off-the-clock ways. I’ve never once heard an argument that carried any sense of “we want to avoid accountability”. What I hear all the time is “we really wish criticisms were fairer”.
This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.
As will be a recurring feature in this newsletter, many major outlets don’t seem especially interested in questioning their own fairness (or, rather, their unfairness). And so my plan is to highlight such an overwhelming number of examples that it becomes difficult for said institutions to dodge the point.
(Per reader feedback, I’ve trimmed length again. We’re going to try to keep each non-longform edition at 1,000 - 1,500 words.)
This newsletter is fiercely pro-journalism. The goal is shining a light on how bad certain problems are so that we’ll chose to do better.
To check my own biases, I offer bounties for anything untrue or unfair. See something? Say something!
One weird thing about the news: it isn’t always clear whether a specific article is actually meant to be interpreted as news. And even in cases where something is clearly just commentary, it’s rarely obvious what fact/fairness reviews may have been applied.
Illustrating both points, we have the NYT:
Just Collect Less Data, Period.
Every company wants the biggest data stockpile possible. We need unilateral data disarmament.
This is from their On Tech newsletter. Is it meant to be read as opinion? It’s hard to say! Neither the URL or header make it clear (where some NYT Opinion content is clearly labelled). I asked someone who works there to clarify and they didn’t know. And when I messaged the author on Tuesday afternoon to ask, I never heard back.
Being charitable, we’ll assume that it’s purely editorial and that the NYT doesn’t see cause to hold it to traditional journalistic standards.
The author criticizes tech companies for harvesting too much data while leaving out that the NYT itself collects enough of it to allow advertisers to choose from 75 different segments (which, even if a justified amount, ought to be disclosed).
The author praises disability technologies without noting the obvious role that massive data collection plays in making those technologies as good as they are!
But it gets a lot wilder than just that:
While I was reporting an article last year about expanding internet access in parts of Africa, no one wanted to talk about high-altitude balloons that transmit the internet.
Instead, people couldn’t stop praising metal poles that made it far easier and cheaper to bring internet connections to places where conventional cellphone towers weren’t a good option.
To which we’ll add two related fragments from the author’s July 8th newsletter:
Google’s internet balloons — like Facebook’s failed attempt at internet-beaming drones — might be pointlessly showy pieces of equipment where conventional cellphone towers are better suited. But no matter. This is the relatively glamorous tip of an otherwise boring iceberg. …
The internet powers aren’t doing this for selfless reasons…
The strawman and needless digs aside, here’s why those claims are so wild:
Those “internet balloons” are enormously sophisticated. The research that went into making them work has undeniable, non-trivial scientific value.
Those “metal poles” (relays with solar panels attached) support a max coverage area of about 30 square kilometres, where each Google balloon offers almost 5,000.
Does Google have dual motives? Oh, sure. But you know who else does too? The unnamed supplier of those metal poles: Huawei.
And, uh, about them…
From the Wall Street Journal (headline and most of the second paragraph):
Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments Spy on Political Opponents
Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts…
So, to recap:
The author elides any discussion on how their own publisher collects/uses data
The author makes no attempt to justify their suggestion that Google’s balloons might be “pointlessly showy pieces of equipment” (or to even compare competing technologies on grounds like costs, speeds, reliability, compatibility, etc)
By not qualifying, the author doesn’t allow that the “internet powers” might have some selfless motive(s) operating in parallel
The author instead praises a minor bit of innovation from a company whose equipment is currently being ripped out by half of the western world because of profound security concerns
A question I like to ask a lot: which positive journalistic mission is this piece of text consistent with? I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine answers here.
The Art of the Drive-By
I’ve written pretty extensively in past days about how Elon Musk gets covered in the news. While some of this criticism is certainly merited, the thing about criticism is that it loses its bite pretty quickly when critics abuse their power. By consistently publishing lazy/wrong/slanted stories, those meaning to hold leaders to account actually make it less likely for legitimate stories to accomplish any positive purpose.
But, sure, not every article about Musk is bad. Once in a while I do read one that is quite good. And I thought I’d found one yesterday with the NYT’s coverage of Tesla’s Q2 earnings call. That was until I got to this:
Critics of [Elon’s] 2018 compensation package questioned why it was necessary. Before the award, Mr. Musk already owned a large chunk of Tesla — shares that today are worth around $60 billion. That’s more than twice the $25 billion worth of shares available to Mr. Musk through the 2018 package. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, another visionary chief executive, has not needed multibillion compensation packages to motivate him as he has led his company to become a dominant force in the American economy.
Right, to spell out the problems here:
The unsourced use of “critics say” is how you drag someone in the passive voice under the guise of neutral reporting. I hate it. We should all hate it.
If you’re going negative on the comp package, why not at least link to the extensive arguments that Tesla made for it so that readers can judge?
That Bezos has less ownership, an inferior comp structure, and less effective board control can be explained by exactly one thing: Amazon went public 13 years earlier. Lots changed in the interim, mostly to the benefit of founders.
One might not like those changes! But there are direct questions we can ask there to inform/validate our animosity, like how said changes affect stock performance (or whatever other measures) over time. This piece didn’t ask them.
My sense is that journalism would accomplish a lot more if editors were to ban these kinds of snide sidebars, which I don’t see as a particularly controversial argument.
One last one for the road.
The NYT once again (headline and lede):
The Amazon Critic Who Saw Its Power From the Inside
Tim Bray, an internet pioneer and a former vice president at Amazon, sent shock waves through the tech giant in early May when he resigned for what he called “a vein of toxicity” running through its culture.
Well, about all that:
The article has 39 paragraphs. Leaving aside a (below-the-fold) “no comment” acknowledgement, the first paragraph that presented any sort of counter-narrative (if you can even call it that) was number 20.
A fairer framing here would have been “progressive activist faults his employer for not sharing his political ideology even though his employer has famously and consistently held other views for two decades”.
(This isn’t to say that Bray is/was wrong in all his individual criticisms, nor to suggest that there wasn’t a newsworthy element in covering his resignation. My point is that this story was not a serious attempt at presenting a rounded view of complex and longstanding issues on which moral consensus exists only at the margins.)
Anyway, the larger point: we can and should take a magnifying glass to data policies and CEO compensation and Amazon’s stance on unions. But we should do using evidence and with a discernible sense of fairness. Because the natural and entirely predictable consequences of doing the opposite are, well, pretty manifest today.
This newsletter takes a tremendous amount of work. If you find value in this mission, please consider a subscription. It’s $5/mo, and until early September I’m donating 100% of revenues (less taxes; pro-rated for annual) to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. This way readers can test-drive my work without me getting a penny as I prove my value case.