Tech reporters aren't really reporters: Kleiner Perkins attorney shares her lessons from the Ellen Pao trial
She didn't show it at the time, but Kleiner Perkins’ lead attorney Lynne Hermle was shaken by the extent of the media presence this past spring during the Ellen Pao trial.
Last night at Stanford Law School, she pantomimed her internal shock on encountering the rows of cameras outside the courtroom – striking a pose that was a mix between deer-in-the-headlights and Munch’s “Scream”– to the laughter of a crowd of law students, professors and curious community members.
Hermle was on campus to deliver a talk titled “Lessons from the Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Trial,” which promised a discussion of “the difficulties of trying a high-profile case before an audience of reporters as well as jurors; and what employers, managers, and employees can learn from it all.”
“There is a tech media now that we just didn’t have a decade ago. And not everyone in it is a journalist. They didn’t all go to journalism school, and don’t all care about balance. Most of them are millenials and everything that comes with that.”
When her talk had ended, she elaborated on her scorn for millenials.
"We've raised an entire generation of people who think you deserve a trophy just for showing up," she told me.
You might recall that I was one of the reporters present in the court room. I'm still waiting for my trophy. I did find myself at odds with Kleiner's PR machine when I reported Hermle's comments that "I’ve lost all my feminist street cred in this case." At one point, Hermle stood in front of the crowd and demanded "Where's the Panda guy?"
Just in case I was in any doubt whether any of that formed part of her trial recollections, Hermle told the Stanford students:
“It was just a huge group of reporters, everyone from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal, and tech journalists from PandaDaily [sic] to Re/Code.”
She underscored the ineptitude of the press with the example of a reporter’s tweet which emerged from a pretrial hearing in which she’d cited a legal precedent: “Hermle drops law bomb.”
She seemed to be referring to a tweet by ReadWrite Editor in Chief, Owen Thomas, who wrote: "Hermle just dropped a law bomb on the judge..."
Hermle then drew a Venn diagram on the lecture-hall white board. Two circles, never touching, one labled “What was reported,” the other “What really happened.”
“They tried to muddle through the complex legal arguments, but got it wrong most of the time,” she said.
Hermle said the Pao trial wasn’t her first taste of media attention over decades practicing employment law. Even so, she wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the fracas.
“The scrutiny of me was not something that I expected. There was a lot of reporting on my clothing from the feminist press,” she said, and went on to list a number of the offenses.
Early on, a reporter noted her “leopard print top.” (Step forward, Re/Code's Nellie Bowes)
“It sounds like I was leaving the courtroom for my streetwalking shift. That’s not a leopard print top, it’s a business jacket.”
“There was also a lot of commentary on my demeanor, here are the words that were used: ferocious, razer-tongued, commanding, imposing, formidable, intimidating, made Darth Vader look timid…”
She paused for a moment of reflection,
“It was very interesting to me, and I wonder, was any of it because of the surprise that I am a woman doing this? There was no discussion of my opponent’s appearance, and he’s a fabulous dresser.”
At this point I was able to relax slightly in my seat. Pando reported on neither Hermle's appearance or that of her opponent. I did, however, quote Hermle word for word describing her male co-counsel as "America’s sexiest lawyer.” That lawyer, Kleiner Perkins' Paul Vronsky, was also in the lecture hall last night. Once again Hermle pointed out to the audience how handsome he was.
Asked by a law student if she thought there was a double-standard, Hermle answered with customary swashbuckling candor.
“Oh hell yes. But I don’t know what I’d do about it, other than kick ass.”
She didn’t go so far as to suggest there were gender equality issues in venture capital, though.
“When the jury came back, the press coverage changed somewhat in my opinion, they started saying that [Ellen Pao] just wasn’t the right plaintiff to take on this very real problem.”
Nor did she find time in her comments to address the other major component of the media machine installed at the trial: Kleiner's own PR operation.
At all times duing the trial, Kleiner had several in-house and third-party agents present in the courtroom. Often they could be spotted whispering in a friendly reporter's ear, or chewing the ear off a less friendly journalist. I faced the full force of that machine when I reported Hermle's "feminist street cred" comment. I was told, firmly, that all talk in the hallway of the public courthouse was understood to be“off the record,” and it was strongly suggested I should change my story. When I declined, the machine called two of my editors, both of whom, fortunately, referred Kleiner's PRs right back to me.
The PR folks didn’t just confront errant journalists, they also helpfully supplied fact sheets on the merits of the case and offered to clarify or explain the finery of the legal arts to clueless tech reporters.
Hermle may not be wrong to present herself as the true feminist hero of the Pao spectacle, but she didn’t act alone. She was reinforced with the resources of one of the world’s great and storied venture capital firms – who knows better how to corral the peckings of the uncouth, uncredentialed, millenial herd?
In its keyboard-clacking enthusiasm the tech press shook itself free from the VC reins for six weeks this spring. That Hermle saw fit to exact some mocking revenge on the reporters who’d wronged her, six months after the fact and in a friendly room at Stanford Law School... well, it’s almost enough to give this Panda guy hope.