“Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it.”

From a New York magazine story by Benjamin Wallace headlined “Tech vs. Journalism: Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it”:

“Back in the ’80s,” says Steven Levy, a veteran tech journalist and the author of Facebook: The Inside Story, for which he interviewed Mark Zuckerberg seven times, “there wasn’t this giant distance between who you were and who they were. Even Bill Gates would show up at your office in a cab.”

Tech was the sunny future. With the exception of Microsoft, which by the 1990s had been transformed into a monopolistic bogeyman, technology was covered by journalists who were animated largely by a spirit of wonderment: They came bearing tidings of a new world conjured into existence in the garages of Northern California. There was breathless gadget coverage. There were articles lionizing the microchip seers of San Jose. As the dot-com bubble inflated, the industry and its chroniclers were chummily adjacent and occasionally the same people. Red Herring was founded by Tony Perkins, a venture capitalist. Wired and The Industry Standard were the children of an entrepreneur named John Battelle, who hosted rooftop parties in San Francisco where media and tech folk happily commingled. “Everyone was part of one big stew,” recalls Sean Garrett, former head of communications at Twitter.

Even after the Web 1.0 bubble burst, leaving some journalists convinced they’d been too credulous, there endured a robust strain of sycophantic reporting on the Valley. No funding round, product launch, or logo redesign was too insignificant to merit coverage by TechCrunch, a fawning site co-founded by Arrington. Once a year, it hosted the Crunchies, where the likes of Zuckerberg were anointed with awards like Best Founder. “Obviously, this is a wonderful period of human history we are going through right now, and it is okay to celebrate that,” Arrington once said. In time, at least eight TechCrunch reporters would leave to try their hand at investing, a revolving door that became known as “the TC-to-VC pipeline.” At Google in 2005, recalls one employee, “there were just hallways and hallways of framed covers.”…
Belatedly, as big media homed in on the Valley’s transformation from cute and quirky toy-maker to dystopian nightmare factory, outlets began to double down on their tech coverage. The Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and CNN all went on hiring sprees to fortify their San Francisco bureaus.

Rah-rah coverage of start-ups now felt naïve. The achievement bar for meriting coverage rose. Even TechCrunch, bought by AOL, became more skeptical. The Crunchies stopped making sense — “Giving Uber Start-up of the Year,” says TechCrunch writer Alex Wilhelm, “what the fuck does that mean?” — and devolved into brutal roasts of honorees. In 2015, a soused T. J. Miller, the comedian emceeing the awards, had to be played off the stage after calling a woman a “bitch” and breaking a piñata over his own head. “I was apologizing for days,” Wilhelm says. In 2017, TechCrunch pulled the plug on the Crunchies for good. As the tone of coverage changed, reporters began to notice a chill in the air. The A16Z journalist dinners came to an end. After the Information reported on a Me Too scandal involving Google’s Andy Rubin, Lessin says, “that was one of those points where you just feel more of that resistance: ‘Why did you do that story? Was it really important?’ People say to us, ‘Oh, I hope you’re not going down the gossip route.’ ” A Times reporter adds, “Even in 2016, it really felt like people are open and they’ll talk to you, and that just changed in the course of two years. The coverage changed, and they became the new Wall Street.”
This past July on Twitter, a group of VCs and founders led by Srinivasan began pushing the hashtag #ghostNYT, arguing that the Times was hostile and unnecessary to engage with and proposing that the tech community simply stop taking the newspaper’s calls. The proximate cause of the campaign was an article the Times had in the works about Slate Star Codex, a science and futurism blog beloved in certain “rationalist” Silicon Valley circles, which was supposedly going to identify Scott Alexander, the blog’s author, by his real name, Scott Siskind. Although Siskind was only notionally pseudonymous (he had previously published under his real name), more than 7,000 people, including luminaries such as Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator (which incubated such companies as Coinbase, Reddit, Airbnb, DoorDash, and Stripe), and Harvard professor Steven Pinker signed a petition titled “Don’t De-Anonymize Scott Alexander.”

Besides Srinivasan and A16Z, the anti-media posse includes Musk, employees of Thiel, and the circles around Y Combinator. Broadly, what they have in common is a libertarian reverence for technology, innovation, and first principles; contempt for traditional gatekeepers and anyone standing in the way of “founders”; and very thin skin. Many are involved in cryptocurrency. They scoff at credentials, although seemingly half of them went to Stanford, and abhor consensus opinion, except for the opinion that journalists are the absolute worst. A book much in vogue with this group — Srinivasan and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison have both recommended it — is The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm’s study of reportorial seduction and betrayal. (Never mind that the book is on the syllabus in journalism school, too.)

The Valley’s self-appointed media critics can by turns seem disingenuous and naïve. For people who literally think in binary, they’ll have conniptions over an article that elides some small nuance yet be blithely imprecise in ascribing fault to “the media” and “the New York Times.” They routinely fantasize journalistic motivations that are either outdated (“clickbait”) or unrecognizable to any working reporter (suggesting that journalists want to take down tech people because they’re business competitors). If journalists seem to come with agendas, it’s in part, suggests Paul Carr, co-founder of the news site Techworker, because these VCs don’t give much credence to values or perspectives that are not their own: “They do not like anybody telling them anything they’re doing is bad, because most of them have never invested on the basis of whether anything is good or bad. They’ve invested based on returns and growth. Morality is something new and faddish to them.” Srinivasan regularly talks about replacing “corporate journalists” with “citizen journalists,” by which he seems to mean bloggers, possibly crowdfunded with bitcoin and publishing to the blockchain, which sounds intriguing but falls apart if you think about it for more than one minute.
But journalism is only as good as its sources. Even if individual reporters aren’t hurt by the hostility — and may be helped by it in certain personal-brand-building ways (maybe resulting in a lucrative Substack opportunity!) — one consequence of the cold war is a distortion spiral, where journalists ignored by company leadership may overweigh the testimony of leakers and ex-employees, resulting in less balanced coverage, which further antagonizes companies, causing them to be even less cooperative, and so on.

Keeping them in dialogue is likely in everybody’s best interest. “Media and tech are in a deep coexistence, and it’s a totally false narrative that it’s some zero-sum game,” a longtime tech PR person says. “I’d be completely out of a job today, and I’m not. I’m busy. I work with journalists every day, and some I’ve worked with for decades. I think there are some people in tech who like to think the media doesn’t matter, but the truth is they totally know it does, and they want that.”

Lorenz says VCs have courted her, offering her jobs and frequently asking her to come in and talk to them about what she’s seeing on the ground of the “creator economy,” her beat. Andreessen Horowitz pitched her to have an informational meeting with a partner in the past year, but she declined, noting attacks on her by another of the firm’s partners in its portfolio company Clubhouse. And much as the Balaji Srinivasans of the world might wish otherwise, at least some parts of the traditional media retain at least some part of their prestige. “I’ve had people call and ask how they can get reprints of articles in the Times with their photos so they can show it to their parents,” Isaac says.

On the other hand, we’re long past the point of disintermediation. “I follow these guys probably more than I follow journalists,” says an entrepreneur who made his name in the New York media world of the tweeting tech elite. “They’re more interesting. If you want an early warning about the pandemic, it’s going to come from these guys. Whatever role the media plays, these guys are better sources on the pandemic. They’re better sources on the consumer internet in China. I’m on the Andreessen Horowitz website all the time. They are becoming the media. Which begs the question: How can they be so bitter when they’ve won? How can they be such bitter winners? I suppose the victims never recognize when they’ve become the oppressors.”

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