What the Tech Industry and the Media get Wrong About "Cancel Culture"

There is a roaring debate between voices in Silicon Valley and the journalists that cover them over "Cancel Culture"--specifically whether journalists are acting maliciously when negatively reporting on or criticizing figures in tech. But both sides are denying the truth.

What the Tech Industry and the Media get Wrong About "Cancel Culture"
Depicted: Eighteen magazine covers featuring tech industry leaders or companies. Compiled by James Mishra.

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There is a roaring debate between voices in Silicon Valley and the journalists that cover them over "Cancel Culture"--specifically whether journalists are acting maliciously when negatively reporting on or criticizing figures in tech. It's a debate with a long history.

During the dotcom boom, the media uncritically fawned over the young companies that went public long before their business fundamentals solidified. When the boom turned into a bust, the sins of Enron and WorldCom dominated the headlines, with websites like Fucked Company providing criticism and mockery of smaller startups' missteps.

But in the years after the bust, tech and media made amends and coverage became more positive. New publications like TechCrunch tended to write glowing articles about startups. The publications benefited from access to top venture capitalists and founders for interviews and as guests at events--a key revenue stream for publications.

But as tech rose to prominence again, news coverage became more negative. Tech companies like Google and Facebook increasingly became the gatekeepers of publications' audiences and ad revenue. Attempts made by startups to improve on journalism are often seen with hostility from longtime journalists. Even worse, a few companies like Theranos received the kingmaking treatment from the press, only to later be revealed as frauds. The incentives of the game changed: rather than gaining access and anointing royalty, journalists could make their careers by exposing palace intrigue at companies like Uber*.

Tech tends to look at itself with a relatively uncritical eye, so the media's less positive perspective is a valuable counterweight. But critical news isn't necessarily more accurate--the rules of Gell-Mann Amnesia still apply. Michael Crichton describes the Amnesia as follows:

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

Tech people squirm when they see news coverage as inaccurate, and journalists chasing hot stories occasionally screw up. One famous example is Bloomberg's  "The Big Hack"--which makes the aggressively-criticized claim that the Chinese have tampered with computer chips that are currently being in major American datacenters. No evidence of this tampering has been found, but Bloomberg has not yet retracted the story.

Another example is "No Handshakes Please"--the February 2020 Recode article that looked at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz's ban on handshakes as an overreaction. The article was roundly criticized by tech industry figures that extrapolated how deadly the virus could become. Since then, more than one hundred thousand Americans have died from causes relating to the novel coronavirus.

But what angers the tech industry the most is not inaccuracy, but the perception that journalists are out to end others' careers. In the last few weeks, many voices in tech protested the New York Times' upcoming reveal of the clinical psychiatrist that writes under the pen name Scott Alexander. Many--including Alexander himself--are alarmed at the idea that even a positive piece about him could needlessly harm his ability to practice medicine.

Sparking even more anger is the fight created over the coverage of Steph Korey--the former CEO of the luggage startup Away. A December 2019 piece exposed concerns that Korey mistreats her employees. But a more recent Twitter post from New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz kicked off a debate that pulled in dozens of others. Various figures in tech gather on the currently invite-only audio chat app Clubhouse to discuss the controversy, and then some of the audio was leaked to Vice.

The problem is that everybody on both sides is now focused on writing the most devastating reply as opposed to thinking about the big picture. From my perspective, the big picture is made up of these facts:

  • Some figures in the tech industry genuinely deserve criticism, such as when they mistreat or mislead others.
  • Journalists often believe superficially-correct but strategically-incorrect information from sources. This commonly happens when covering company culture, where even inclusive cultures produce a few disgruntled employees.
  • Communication with journalists is on-the-record by default. Then-White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci made this mistake when ranting to journalist Ryan Lizza over the phone without requesting to go off-the-record, resulting in Scaramucci being fired. People in tech are making a mistake when they expect journalists to keep their secrets without asking to go off-the-record. I have written guidelines about how to talk to journalists, covering how to avoid these mistakes.
  • Professional journalists typically protect their sources that speak off-the-record, but they cannot be expected to anonymize who they write about. Scott Alexander let his real identity be an open secret among his fans, but the New York Times cannot be expected to protect that secret.
  • Recording a conversation on Clubhouse may violate wiretapping laws in some jurisdictions, as per attorney Preston Byrne. I would not know because I am not a lawyer. However, it will be nearly impossible to bring criminal charges against such a wiretapper. Clubhouse might try sending uniquely and inaudibly-fingerprinted audio to every user, but an intelligent wiretapper may be able to undo such fingerprinting.
  • Finally--and most importantly--getting angry at journalists will not change their behavior. It will only encourage them to dig for more negative pieces. From a public relations perspective, the right way to deal with journalists is with honesty, transparency, and charm.

Further Reading

*Ethical disclosure: I am a former software engineer at Uber, compensated with cash and stock. I currently own exactly one share in Uber.