The Disinformation

When Jessica Lessin’s The Information launched a month ago I was an enthusiastic supporter, paying the $400 yearly subscription fee right away to get access to quality tech content.

I remember blinking when I read about her joking to tech execs at the launch party that they could pay $10,000 and kill a story, thinking that it really wasn’t all that funny.

It was clearly a joke, but it wasn’t the kind of joke I would have ever made when running TechCrunch. People fawn all over tech reporters in the hope of getting good coverage or being able to squash bad coverage. A lot of reporters eat it up. Joking about being able to pay to kill a story isn’t just a joke, it’s a reminder about power relationships that often lead to bad reporting.

Anyway, I put that out of my mind almost before I finished reading it.

But now something has happened that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. They have apparently altered a quote in a story about Y Combinator’s Paul Graham. In addition to altering the quote, they left out all the context of his statement, which was an answer to a question that wasn’t printed in the final post.

Graham’s blog post on the issue is here.

A quote from an “interview” with me (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a minute) went viral on the Internet recently:

We can’t make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

When I saw this myself I wasn’t sure what I was even supposed to be saying. That women aren’t hackers? That they can’t be taught to be hackers? Either one seems ridiculous.

The mystery was cleared up when I got a copy of the raw transcript. Big chunks of the original conversation have been edited out, including a word from within that sentence that completely changes its meaning. What I actually said was:

We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

I.e. I’m not making a statement about women in general. I’m talking about a specific subset of them. So which women am I saying haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years? This will seem anticlimactic, but the ones who aren’t programmers.

Lessin has so far stood by her the story, saying that their editing and excerpting were for clarity.

This is, in my opinion, one of the worst sins in reporting.

And really, three sins were committed. The first was changing a quote. You just can’t do that, ever. The second was omitting contextual information which would have made the statement intelligible. And the third was taking a background discussion about Paul’s partner Jessica Livingston and turning it into an “interview” in the first place.

It’s extremely frustrating to have your words rearranged, edited and taken out of context to make it seem like you’re saying something you aren’t. It has happened to me repeatedly, to the point where I rarely even consider doing interviews any more. More often I’ll make statements in writing, but only under the condition that my entire answer be printed, not just an excerpt.

When reporters do this they’re spreading disinformation and being unethical. The result is that people don’t want to talk about anything controversial, because they know there’s a chance that they’ll be made to look like fools.

Yesterday I said I will cancel my subscription to The Information if what Paul says is true. Unless Jessica has anything further to say on this in her defense, I’ll be doing that shortly.

Update: Jessica writes about this here. My response (and I think I’m done here).

22 thoughts on “The Disinformation

  1. John says:

    At first, the Paul Graham quote rubbed me the wrong way. If PG didn’t already have a history of saying the wrong thing, very few people would have believed it…

    I feel it is unethical journalism to alter a quote, or remove the context in which it was spoken. You can change the meaning of something by a sin of omission. Joking about killing a story for a fee is something a journalist should never do. Reporting should be done without bias, chronicling the facts, without adding or subtracting information. So sad that it appears tech journalism is the latest thing to be “disrupted” in the name of getting paid…

  2. Spot on, reminded me of your racist interview fiasco… Hype around controversial topics for traffic and attention has gotten out of hand. Why even have sources and interview people if you’re just going to change what they say.

  3. I think it’s even worse than “The second was omitting contextual information which would have made the statement intelligible”. I think that both statements are equally intelligible, but that the one taken without all the context is highly inflammatory.

    • Additionally, the correct way, or at least academic way, to alter a quote would have been “We can’t make [...] women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.” Which would have begged further scrutiny.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      I wasn’t clear. What I meant is that the original, actual quote would be unintelligible without the context that they also removed.

  4. Nelson Saenz says:

    Its unfortunate that there is yet another example of access and privilege being abused for journalistic sensationalism. Jessica’s site seemed like a refreshing change but seems she and other reporters of The Information are checking their integrity at the door.

    Thanks for reporting on this Mike.

  5. For me (born and raised in a totalitarian state) altering facts to serve a particular political agenda is not The Information, but The Propaganda. I got used to propaganda, but I’ve never ever even thought about paying for propaganda. I always considered propaganda a very junk but always free food for thought. I’d have cancelled the minute I’ve learned about that “interview” and what PG thinks about it.

  6. denniswingo says:

    Michael

    Thanks for exercising YOUR power in this realm to set the record straight. I have no dog in this fight but as someone who has been interviewed many times, it is exceptionally easy to make that very slight twist that changes everything….

  7. john pasmore says:

    The truth is in short supply. Very disappointing to see content and a quote no less handled in such a cavalier manner. The Information’s explanation should have simply been an apology and a retraction because there is no way to maintain their integrity while trying to further hide what’s an obvious error in judgement and journalistic oversight. Kind of sad given the overall scarcity of reporting not influenced either by advertisers or commercial interests.

  8. orionblastar says:

    If it was a newspaper it would be called yellow journalism. The reporter would be suspended from work with no pay with a full investigation, and an apology given to the victim.

    Now it is standard for reporters to do this to create controversy for cash and ratings. Everytime the website gets a ‘hit’ on a fake story like this, the company gets rewarded finacially. So the business model of blogs and reporters now is to fake news just for the ad revenue. It has become more like the supermarket tabloids than the newspapers of old that had integrity. If they had any integrity left they would pull this story and apologize to PG. Instead they are pretentious douce bags over the whole thing. It makes me sick!

  9. orionblastar says:

    This is yellow journalism we expect from supermarket tabloids. If they had any integrity they’d pull this story and make a public apology to PG. This is another fake story only for the Web hits for advertising revenue. Thank you for informing me on this, keep them honest.

    It sounds like a feminist became overzealous and faked a story to make the hacker community look bad. My sister is a hacker, I used to work with female hackers until I became disabled. Women can code too. Nobody has ever claimed that women cannot be hackers.

  10. Rob Smith says:

    I have just read Jessica’s response to your article, reading the question posed to Paul Graham & then his response. I personally believe that missing the ‘these’ from the response is very poor & completely changes the meaning of that specific statement. The main issue I have though is that when you read the entire transcript the ‘these’ becomes even more required.

    For the risk of pulling quotes out of the context:

    ‘I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. You could argue that we should do more, that we should encourage women to start startups. It’s not enough if we merely have…That we should be causing them to start startups and not merely accepting or rejecting them fairly.’

    […]

    ‘If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it own their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.’

    ‘It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that, because probably…’

    So when you read the preceding paragraphs who Paul is referring to with ‘these’ becomes glaringly obvious. This is shoddy reporting at best, downright libelous at worst.

    The idea of spending $400 a year to read good, well written, high quality news makes a lot of sense to me. But it doesn’t look like their reporting passes the ‘high quality’ requirements at all.

    Michael: Did you cancel your subscription?

  11. Noah Finch says:

    I think you’re spot-on here, Mike.

    But I’m also taken aback by your reaction to the joke about paying to kill a story. While I don’t have reason to believe that TechCrunch has ever accepted money to kill a story, the site clearly plays favorites and, under your watch, blatantly ignored big stories about companies you had bad blood with (e.g., Launch).

    There are also multiple accounts from startup founders saying they were threatened by you and other writers at TC to pull the plug on their coverage (just Google it). And while this isn’t as bad as what Jessica Lessin did to PG, it certainly makes this post pot-and-kettle-ish.

  12. RAFrenzy says:

    Ramifications to the fourth estate aside, the reblogs and retweets of this post make me once again thankful for the age in which we’re living — where someone with a voice better stay real or they can easily be called on it.

  13. Michael M says:

    One might say the only thing worse than changing a quote is defending the change. It appears to me Jessica Lessin’s defense is: we didn’t understand the quote, so we changed it to match our assumption of what he meant. If words don’t seem to make sense in a quote, it’s probably not smart to start throwing them out. The better thing to do would be to ask for a clarification, which by her own admission they had plenty of time to do.

    My take on this is Jessica Lessin has a different interpretation of Paul Graham’s words. There’s no apology for taking his words out of context, because in her opinion they’re not out of context. I could believe that there was no ill intent to twist Paul Graham’s words, but to hold fast to an interpretation of his words that hinges on an apparently misplaced and meaningless word is bizarre. Her “interpretation” would only be valid if it didn’t involve removing words. As a result, Paul Graham’s personal take on it is the only one that makes sense here. By issuing such a defensive correction Lessin isn’t defending facts, but rather an opinion. Facts and words be damned.

  14. josuter says:

    What is needed is a filter on the receiving end of information like this. A response from a single person might be useful, but maybe just more spin. The better, more useful info would pass through the neurons of team members and then be posted. A bit of dally, but much more useful for me anyhow.

  15. Brade says:

    Any website using the creepily Orwellian title “The Information” probably was never to be trusted to begin with.

  16. It was a bad practice and intolerable.

  17. Mike: Can we please talk about how Zillow, Trulia & RedFin have it wrong? Huge market ready for correct approach. I’m guy that brought TC RollingRock day Crunchpad called off. 15 yrs. industry exp. I won’t waste your time, scout’s honor!

  18. miamihair says:

    Excellent story. Unfortunately, I’ve only become more frustrated with the growing “disinformation” of the past decade (particularly online media).

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