Recode’s Kara Swisher on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Kara Swisher.

You’ve said that the tech press is great at telling you about the new iPhone but not so good at doing investigative journalism. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about why that is.
I think with Wall Street reporters and D.C. reporters, there’s a price for being obstreperous. Access and other things. One of the good things about tech is there’s all these really cool products, there’s cool things to write about. It’s really interesting to write about the topics that are changing our society. It’s easy to write about the shiny new object. I don’t think we’re flacking for it, I think it’s really genuinely interesting. Some of these ideas about how we change the way we eat, or how we change the way we communicate, or the impact of technology on our culture — these are all really fascinating stories. 

I think where it falls down is in criticizing this group of people. First, they’re not used to criticism, and unlike, say, a banker who sort of knows they’re kind of sketchy, people in Silicon Valley really think of themselves as world-changing, good people: “We know best because we’re so smart. And obviously we’re rich, so we know best.” So what you get is, if you write something that’s positive, they say, “Oooh, good journalism,” and if you write something tough, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s clickbait.” (That’s Trump’s favorite word now.) So if anything is even slightly critical they call it clickbait and they either get mad and deny access or they go right to Peter Thiel–ville, which is an appalling example of someone who clearly was wounded by press, doesn’t like that they wrote he was gay … and then pretended he was funding a lawsuit against Gawker for philanthropy. I don’t mind a good revenge plot, but I wish he would just say, “I don’t like that they did this to me and I’m getting back at them.” But his whole speech about how he’s helping humanity by putting this media company out of business is sort of the logical conclusion of people being very sensitive about things that are written about them.

But when coverage in general is softer than normal attention seems invasive.
We did a great piece today about the LinkedIn sale. We were slightly more critical, because I think it was a real tough decision. Everyone else was celebratory. But you don’t sell your company if you’re in great shape, you know what I mean? You just don’t. We were trying to say, look, he was in a jam. He created a great company, but it still wasn’t Facebook, you know? Facebook was the one that really reached escape velocity, and a lot of these companies haven’t, and it’s okay to say that: “Good try, nice work, but you needed to sell.” That’s a fair assessment of what went on, but they even get mad when you do that. It’s great for him to get the price he got (although it’s not as big as it used to be), but, like, everyone wants kudos for what is essentially a sale? You never say, “Okay, that didn’t work out.” No one wants that to be said.

Because?
They have to maintain this illusion that even in failure they’re successful. Sometimes failure is just failure. And it’s okay. One of the good things about Silicon Valley is that it’s okay to fail. I firmly believe that, too, but at the same time we can call a failure a failure, rather than a “pivot” or an “iteration.” There are all kinds of euphemisms.

But why do journalists have to play into that? I can understand the VCs …
We make fun of it. It’s a very cozy place, just like Washington. And when you do go against them … We wrote a pretty tough piece about a person at a company that was not liked by his employees, and we were saying he’s in trouble. And he called me up and he said, “You’re like TMZ now.” And I was like, that’s supposedly going to hurt my feelings? I happen to love Harvey Levin. I was like, “First of all, I didn’t write the negative things, your employees did. I didn’t create the problem. Secondly, TMZ’s always right, so it’s not an insult to Kara Swisher.”

But not everybody’s like that, by the way; if you call out Marc Andreessen, he takes it, you know what I mean? He’ll come back at you, but you don’t mind that.

He’s not going to try and shut you down.
He doesn’t get his nose out of joint. There are certain people who get it, and if you criticize them it’s not the end of the world. We had an issue with Paul Graham. We wrote a piece where his wife was bothered, and since then he’s been really tetchy. And I’m like, are you kidding me? Everything is accurate. We didn’t do anything that wasn’t accurate and fair. We spend a lot of time being fair. I think some people can be super-snarky and I don’t like it, that’s not my style. There’s no reason for it.

What about with Marissa Mayer ?
I was critical of her tenure from the beginning because of a lot of moves she made. Now, I’ve known her as an executive a long time, and I knew her background at Google, which was very mixed. So I was like, “Hey, just a second. She’s never run anything. Some of the selections of executives she’s making aren’t very good. It’s a bigger problem at Yahoo than people realize — she’s not going to just arrive and wave her golden wand and make it okay.” And people are like, “Why are you so mean to her?” and I’m like, “This isn’t high school, she’s an executive, she’s a highly paid executive at a major public company, and she’s messing it up.”

Turns out…
I kept saying, “This is not going to end well.” I don’t think it was mean. All I was commenting on was her business ability. And people were saying I was mean. I’m not mean, I’m accurate.

But by the way, everyone’s really mean to her, actually. Super personal. I don’t care if she wants to sit on a throne and take pictures. I don’t care if she sleeps through a meeting. I never wrote about any of those things, because it had nothing to do with her performance as an executive.

Were people willing to turn on her because she was no longer perceived as powerful?
I think people like these “genius comes in to save the day” narratives, as if it’s that simple. And then when it doesn’t turn out, they’re like, “Genius didn’t save the day, she’s a goat.” You know what I mean? It’s a super-simplistic way of looking at things. Theranos is another good example. Now, we don’t cover health care, so I never covered Theranos. But certainly, more investors should have noticed this, but more health-care reporters should have tried the product. You know, the guy from the Journal did a tremendous job in pointing out that the product isn’t any good, yet there was one profile after another of her that were all like, “Isn’t she fantastic?” I was fascinated. I really was like, “What’s going on, why were there so many nice pieces?”

She’s young, she’s pretty, she’s got Henry Kissinger as an adviser. It was a great story …
Yeah, but nobody looked at the actual product. I’ll tell you, it made me think hard about how we cover stuff. The turtleneck! She’d do the Steve Jobs poses and I remember thinking, Wow, there’s something creepy here. It took just one really great health-care reporter to say, “Hey.” He got to the heart of it, which is, “Does this product work?”

But, listen, CEO porn is not a new thing, right? A lot of magazines have been based on that: “How did he do it?” “He gets on his plane and he flies to Jakarta …” You know what I mean? People love that shit.

Another element of Theranos, there was a T magazine profile that was written by Marc Andreessen’s wife …
I know, I wrote her a note about that. She was perplexed why people were mad. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” But that wasn’t Lauren Arrillaga-Andreessen’s fault — she doesn’t live in the world of journalism. Why would the Times assign that?

Do you think that journalists in the tech media feel like they’re on the same team with a lot of their subjects? They’re tech enthusiasts themselves.
They can. It can happen. Because at the heart of it, it is kind of fucking cool. It’s like, what would you do if you were covering Edison or Ford. The car is fucking cool! And it’s clear that some of this stuff is really going to change the world. It’s not like when Kellogg’s comes out with a new Pop-Tart, you know what I mean? Elon Musk is making spacecraft to go to Mars.

Does that prevent the hard questions from being asked? Because I think there are hard questions to ask about Tesla and SpaceX, for instance.
One hundred percent. You can do both. And I don’t think people do both all the time. Like say, Okay, what’s the concept around landing on Mars? It’s fucking cool, okay. If you’re a shareholder in SpaceX, are you really ever going to get to Mars, or are you going to blow it? You don’t want to be the one to … you can just see someone sitting on the sidelines at Kitty Hawk going, “I don’t think this one’s going to fly. And if it does, the wings cost too much.”

You could also draw the parallel that for all their wonderful conquest of the air, the Wright Brothers were total bastards.
Yes.

How has the injection of VC tech money into digital outlets changed how journalism gets made?
You get Jeff Bezos [with the Washington Post], has he done anything yet? No. He doesn’t seem to have messed it up. Some tech person’s probably going to buy the New York Times at some point, that’s who has the money now. You’re going to get this because some of them are super-interested. Are they any worse that Carlos Slim?

And if I had a choice between Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos, I would pick Bezos hands down. I just would. Now, if he starts doing meddlesome things, starts calling up the editor and saying, “Hey, we want more on the fact that I don’t need to be taxed,” then that’s another issue. He doesn’t do that, but if and when he does, that is certainly something that should be reported on. If I was a tech mogul I wouldn’t buy a journalistic institution, you know they’re going to turn on you. Look at Pierre Omidyar with the Intercept. He gave them millions and then they attacked him.

He didn’t know how the game was played.
No, of course not. It’s more that they’re unsophisticated than anything else. They’re not malevolent.

Do you think the business model of the more established media properties doesn’t make sense anymore?
Well, it’s really a hard time. You’ve got severe advertising issues. How do you make money? Should you do commerce? Should you do events, like we do? Do you make money from that? Is it sustainable? My kids get information through Snapchat, not through the newspapers. How do you reach them? It’s not that they don’t want information, it’s that they’re reaching it a different way, and that’s the difficult part.

What is your answer for Recode?
Well, we do a combination of stuff. We got some profitability on the website when we were at the Journal, and then the events just mint money for us. We have to look into commerce and do it ethically; we don’t want to do what everybody else does. If we recommend something, should we be selling it? Does it look like we’re hawking it? We think about those issues. But obviously commerce has been really great to us. Advertising is clearly problematic, but I don’t have to worry about that anymore because Vox Media figures that out for me. But I think about it. Everyone’s suddenly going on engagement instead of traffic. The metrics keep changing. It’s really confusing! But so what? It’s hard to do a small business in America. It’s hard to run a pizza joint. Suddenly tomatoes cost more. Journalists are not immune to business concerns, even if they sometimes act like they are. 

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know