"These aren't real journalists, Richard. They're tech journalists.” Last night’s “Silicon Valley,” reviewed
In every arena where money and power collide to create that amorphous entity known as "influence," there's a potential for the journalists who cover it to become corrupted. Whether in politics, finance, or increasingly tech, the closer a reporter comes to her sources and subjects, the greater the opportunity for favoritism.
Granted, a reporter can certainly learn an enormous amount by striking close relationships with the most powerful and interesting people in her beat -- and indeed this is the defense made by tech reporters who go out drinking with startup founders. But getting too close can cloud a reporter's judgment, whether implicitly -- as in a journalist might view reporting subjects with more sympathy than they perhaps deserve -- or explicitly -- wherein a journalist may pull punches when reporting on a company in return for scoops and other information or, in extreme cases, maybe even a job down the line.
HBO's Silicon Valley isn't always the funniest show, nor is it among HBO's most profound series when it comes to documenting the human condition. But more often than not, it's astoundingly accurate in capturing the dynamics and rhythms of tech firms and the larger zeitgeist surrounding them. "Binding Arbitration," the ninth and penultimate episode of Season 2, was no exception, as the writers turned their attention to the conflicted and incestuous world of tech journalism. And while I technically belong to this tribe of lost souls, the episode's criticism of the tech press is spot-on.
There are two scenes that highlight this trend in "Binding Arbitration." (by the way, can we talk about episodes titles like "Binding Arbitration"? They exhibit the best and the worst of the show: On one hand, the writers are not above venturing into the weeds when it comes to intricate business and legal operations. On the other, said business and legal operations are usually boring as hell).
Anyway, like I said, there are two scenes that explore tech journalism with a critical eye. The first is obvious, and in fact less interesting or true-to-life than the second. Nelson Bighetti, the ex-Pied Piper employee who the tech giant Hooli keeps promoting to bolster its IP lawsuit against Richard, stumbles upon a phone left at a bar by two Nucleus employees. On it is a beta version of the Nucleus platorm, which is supposed to outperform Pied Piper's own compression algorithm. The audience already knows Nucleus is shit, but now Richard knows too after Bighetti hands off the phone to him as an act of contrition for leaving Pied Piper for Hooli and for playing along with the corporation's schemes to discredit the tiny startup.
Armed with evidence of Hooli's -- an moreover CEO Gavin Belson's -- huge product failure, Richard calls up Belson and threatens to give the phone to the press unless Hooli's frivolous infringement lawsuit against Pied Piper is dropped. But Belson calls his bluff:
"If my phone ends up in the hands of a journalist," Belson says, "Palo Alto Chief of Police Ed Gaskins ,who apropos of nothing is a close personal friend of mine, would have to go and ask this person where they got my phone. Keep in mind, these aren't real journalists, Richard. They're tech journalists. Do you think they'd go to prison to protect their source?"
Those who have followed technology for at least three iPhone generations will know this is a reference to when an Apple developer left an iPhone 4 prototype at a bar, which ended up in the hands of someone who sold the phone to Gizmodo for $5,000. In that scenario, Gizmodo revealed the identity of the developer who lost it (though Apple could have likely figured that out itself), but did not sell out the go-between who gave the phone to the tech outlet. So while Belson is correct that most tech journalists won't "go to prison to protect their source," the real-life material for this subplot transpired a little differently.
The more telling anti-tech journalist line came when Bighetti testified at the binding arbitration hearing. When attempting to prop him up as the real mastermind behind Pied Piper, Hooli's lawyer mentions that Wired Magazine wrote a cover story on the hapless Bighetti. And this gets to the heart of tech journalism's problem. It's less that tech reporters sit around withholding or providing praise based on who their employer's investors are. Certainly, conflicts can and do arise between news outlets and the entities providing them money -- particularly advertisers. But it rarely affects an individual reporter's day-to-day decision-making. The real problem with the tech press is that it's lazy. It's far easier to let a PR firm tell you what's important or newsworthy about a company than it is for the reporter to determine that on her own. It's hard to blame journalists, frankly. To be a "tech" reporter it means you cover companies across a ridiculously wide breadth of subject matter, from cloud computing to consumer apps to the Internet of Things. Of course it's easier to write a profile of a guy Hooli says is important it is to find that important luminary on your own. In fact, the really interesting people in tech are usually the ones who don't even think to talk to the press.
At the end of the episode, Richard is put in a position to lie to save his company -- and he can't do it, pretty much proving that if Pied Piper is a success, it will be less of a Breaking Bad-esque descent into moral degradation and more a utopian vision of how companies should be built, much like West Wing is a vision of how government should operate. I guess those kinds of shows just make people happier.