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Understanding the Controversy Over Silicon Valley’s ‘Journalism’

Can you trust writers who have a financial stake in the companies they cover?
February 14, 2012

Dan Lyons, tech journalist at Newsweek (and doer of that other thing), thinks that people who write about companies they invest in can’t be objective about those companies. But he couched his argument in a vicious personal attack, which means every post on the subject from now to eternity are going to include at least a half dozen of those Michael Jackson eating popcorn gifs and will mostly miss the point. (His headline, for those who didn’t bother to click through: “Hit men, click whores, and paid apologists: Welcome to the Silicon Cesspool”).

What’s remarkable here isn’t that a senior writer at Newsweek has picked a fight with some of America’s best-known technology bloggers, one the founder of TechCrunch and the other its best-known writer. After all, MG Siegler and Michael Arrington’s ascension from scribes to investors has already occasioned much hand-wringing in the tech press. (Mostly because: Investors who write about companies they invest in as if they’re disinterested third parties = what?)

Rather, what you should pay attention to, after you get past all the ad-hominem attacks flying on both sides of this “debate,” is the fact that Siegler’s and Arrington’s responses don’t actually address the (admittedly, much-obscured) core of Lyons’s attacks on their work: Namely, that they don’t understand why objectivity would be a desirable thing.

Josh Brown sums it up nicely: “Reporters in Silicon Valley get scoops on the startups THEY HAVE THEIR OWN MONEY IN. It’s hilarious, like if ESPN also owned the Lakers … Can you imagine if the anchors on CNBC were invested in an IPO and the reporters at the WSJ were shorting it? Insanity.”

It’s easy to dismiss all attempts to put oneself at a remove from the subject of a story. After all, everyone who writes about technology has their preferences—companies we like and don’t, and our tastes change over time. What the liberation from old models of objectivity brought us was an escape from the View from Nowhere— that is, the notion that we aren’t all biased to begin with, or that we shouldn’t disclose it.

But wearing your biases on your sleeve doesn’t mean you don’t have them. The temptation to mislead oneself is the reason that journalists aren’t supposed to invest in companies they cover. It’s a foundational rule, not because people who write about corporations all wish they could make money like the industry players they cover, but because it’s too easy to rationalize away a conflict of interest when it aligns perfectly with your own advantage.

Arrington at least takes a swipe at addressing Lyons’s charge of bias by pointing out that he is also often critical of companies in which he invests.

If I was the person that Dan Lyons says I am, I would be a psychopath. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t even consider the fact that I’m simply speaking my mind. That I’ve always just spoken my mind. That I’ve never been the type of person to not speak my mind. There’s no way to look at my record and think that I am somehow a “hack for hire.”

Of course, simply “speaking your mind” is no guarantee against self-delusion, either. It seems that Arrington and Siegler think that speaking from the heart is the ultimate route to the truth, which is a fine thing to believe when you’re young and naive and unfamiliar with the myriad ways that we compartmentalize our thoughts, revise our view of the past, and reconstruct a present narrative that suits however we’re feeling about the world and ourselves on that particular day.

On one level, I admire this line of reasoning. It’s writing with a voice—and a history and a context and a face— that has revived analysis and even (improbably) the essay in the digital medium, and many of the finest practitioners of this art owe an unacknowledged debt to the deliberately self-unschooled “hacks” who first started throwing brickbats from outside what used to meaningfully be called the mainstream media.

But when Siegler and Arrington are going on about how insanely jealous of their success Lyons must be, rather than answering his charge of bias, what their misunderstanding (or misdirection) suggests is that they can only imagine that a writer would be principally motivated, as they are, by what appears to be simple greed.

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