May 27, 2016 ยท 8 minutes

I don’t subscribe to the Information, so I only just received a copy of their morning newsletter, after a reader forwarded it to me.

Normally that still wouldn’t necessarily mean I’d read it. But then I saw the headline.

Let Silicon Valley Speak

Oh boy.

The email begins with a lengthy editorial from Information founder Jessica Lessin (a former Wall Street Journal reporter) in which she attacks the horrible mean tech media for being so beastly to (Pando investor) Peter Thiel and Facebook.

Now Lessin didn’t see fit to disclose this in the article, so I will before you read anything that follows. Jessica Lessin is married to Sam Lessin, the former VP of Product at Facebook. Sam Lessin, a close friend of Mark Zuckerberg,  joined Facebook after Zuck and Co acquired his company, Drop.io, before Facebook IPO’d. It was an all-stock deal, which likely netted Lessin a fortune when Facebook went public. Lessin was even on stage with Zuckerberg when he rang the NASDAQ bell.

I point out the Lessins’ vast household wealth not to diminish the fact that it was Jessica, not Sam, who built the Information (although she employs her husband as an “intern”) but rather to make clear that you don’t build a self-funded media company on a former Wall Street Journal writer’s salary. In other words: Jessica and Sam live in a house that Zuck built, they spend money that Zuck paid and the Information very likely wouldn’t exist without Facebook cash.

That’s fine, but at the very least that material disclosure should have been in place before Lessin continued to write. Because what she wrote was ludicrously pandering to both Facebook and Peter Thiel (a Facebook board member). It was also flat wrong.

Lessin argues that Silicon Valley billionaires don’t have enough opportunities to speak their mind.

Conservative leaders questioned the impartiality of a Facebook feature that curates the news. Commentators question whether Peter Thiel’s backing of anti-Gawker lawsuits is appropriate.

I happen to think that the first is silly; it was triggered by an unsubstantiated allegation by a former employee..

The second has also gotten way more attention than it deserves. Yes, trying to put a news business out of business is serious, but I believe people have the right to respond to any news organization he or she believes has behaved irresponsibly.

But what bothers me the most about both controversies is the implication that tech leaders should be devoid of opinions or deprived of the chance to support causes they believe in...

I worry these recent events further skew the conversation around bias, in tech and media, in the wrong direction. We want transparency more than impartiality. The difference is important to remember.

I also worry the uproar over the Facebook and Thiel episodes will have a chilling effect on tech leaders and stop them from taking a stance on sensitive, but important issues…

But every week, someone else in the Valley tells me they are staying quiet because they see only downsides to speaking out amid all this media scrutiny. It’s hard to blame them after articles like this one, which called Thiel an “asshole” for supporting Donald Trump.

It’s hard to know where to start.

Perhaps with the  suggestion that Peter Thiel’s secret funding of lawsuits against a media organization is simply part of a “conversation.” Or that he should be allowed to personally finance the presidential campaign of an anti-immigrant, sexist, racist fascist and the media should just sit meekly by without calling him rude names. (While Trump uses Thiel’s cash to fund his vile attacks against minority groups and women.)

Perhaps I should start by reminding Lessin how quickly poor downtrodden Facebook threw one of its other board members -- (Pando investor) Marc Andreessen under the bus for expressing his own ridiculous opinion about India. It was Facebook, not the media, that literally silenced Andreessen -- actually ordered him off Twitter -- for saying the wrong thing.

No. The place to start is with Lessin’s headline. “Let Silicon Valley Speak.”

Silicon Valley, and the billionaires who fund it, speak plenty. Not only do they speak -- on TV, in newspapers on blogs and at fancy conferences organized by… uh… the tech media. But they control how the rest of us can speak too. Facebook decides if we can post breastfeeding photographs or when we can say rude things about our friends. Twitter decides what word or phrase or image is appropriate or inappropriate. Google decides what appears first in search results and, increasingly, tech billionaires decide who gets elected to the most powerful office on earth.

Reading the Information demand we  “let Silicon Valley speak” is the equivalent of listening to a domineering billionaire tech bro screaming at a female employee to LET ME SPEAK.

ALL YOU FUCKING DO IS SPEAK.

Tucked deeply inside Lessin’s column is a second conflict, this one (sorta) disclosed..

Scandal-hungry bloggers attack reporters for hanging out with their college friends, who happen to work in the same industry they cover. (OK, maybe the last one is just me and some Valleywag-related sour grapes from 2008, but you get it…)

Yes, Lessin has been personally attacked by Valleywag. The site once wrote a mean post about a party she hosted where the invitees included Zuckerberg, Brit Morin and Dick Costolo.

It’s not clear which of those she means by “college friends”. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t sound like there was anything wrong with the party.

But compared to that microgram of snark, Pando and I and -- time and time and time again -- Sarah personally have been brutalized by Gawker. Valleywag once suggested, not long after Sarah gave birth, that she would rather spend time reviewing “apps” than caring for her newborn child. Never mind that Sarah doesn’t review apps and, well, she’s literally writing the book on prioritizing one’s children over one’s company. That’s nowhere near the worst of it, but that’s all I feel even remotely comfortable repeating.

Still, even we got off lightly compared to the abuse hurled by Gawker writers against people who by no objective standard should be considered public figures. Lives ruined by cackling millennials in the pursuit of pageviews.  

We’ve also been on the other side. Lessin cites my recent article, in which I call Peter Thiel as asshole for supporting Trump, as another example of how cruel the press can be to billionaires.

Let’s all agree: Gawker is awful. Terrible. Vile. Any sane person takes at least some pleasure in watching Thiel and Denton going at it. Finally the bully becomes the bullied.

And yet that doesn’t mean tech reporting should never be aggressive, or that calling someone an asshole is never the appropriate response. It doesn’t mean awfulness and hypocrisy and discrimination and just plain fascism shouldn’t be attacked as loudly and persistently as possible.

There’s a lunatic bullying fringe occupied by Gawker that barely deserves the name journalism.  Then there are virtual press release factories like Verizon-TechCrunch or Comcast-Re/Code which rely on access journalism to support their  lucrative event franchises.

The ideal place to sit is somewhere in the middle.

Our coverage of Peter Thiel is a good example of how this can work, I think. If you want to hear Thiel speak, you can watch the hour-long interview Pando hosted with the guy as part of our Pando Monthly series. Talk talk talk, all Thiel all the time. But then, after he declared his support for an anti-immigration fascist (despite himself being an immigrant, by the way), we pushed pause on the interview and took some time to call him a fucking asshole. Because, in the humble opinion of this writer, supporting Trump makes Peter Thiel a fucking asshole.

Speaking of Pando. I’ve got to hit publish on today’s issue, so I’ll end with a couple more things that Lessin appears to have overlooked in all of this.

Firstly, Peter Thiel doesn’t actually want to speak.

He supported Hulk Hogan in private so he wouldn’t have to speak about it. Wouldn’t have to publicly express his views on the subject. Before that, when it came to supporting Trump, Thiel declined countless requests for comment from every news organization on the planet. Again, he didn’t want to speak.

The only reason we know a damn thing about Thiel’s lawsuits is because the media reported it. The only reason we know about his support of Trump is through Federal election law disclosures.

Secondly, the wealthy venture capitalists and billionaire college buddies who pay hundreds of dollars subscribe to the Information aren’t “Silicon Valley.” In fact, the Information doesn’t even speak for all billionaires and VCs. After I published my “Peter Thiel is an asshole” post, my inbox was filled with responses from the great and the good of Silicon Valley. Most of those responses were a variation on three words: Yes! Finally! More!

The truth is, most people I’ve spoken to in Silicon Valley hate Gawker as much as I do. But they also think it’s important that people like Peter Thiel are held accountable for their actions, just like Nick Denton should be for his. They also hate Trump as much as I do, but would laugh at Lessin’s suggestion that mean coverage of Thiel’s pro-Trump spending will somehow dissuade them from supporting Hillary or Bernie (or even Trump, if they must.)

Silicon Valley should be allowed to speak. Of course. But then the media (and everyone else) should be allowed to respond, even if that response hurts the feelings of those holding all the power.

Likewise, if we suspect those in power are acting in secret to manipulate politics or the media, it is our duty to bring those facts to light and force them to speak.

That’s how it works. And that’s how it should continue to work. No matter how much Peter Thiel or his apologists would wish it otherwise.