Editor in Chief Dan Frommer joins Swisher and Recode Media host Peter Kafka for a discussion about tech and the media in 2017.
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Recode’s Kara Swisher returns to the podcast to talk about how the media and Silicon Valley have fared in the year-plus since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me, and that’s Kara Swisher.
Kara Swisher: Hi.
Chiming in in the background. We are part of the Vox Media podcast network. I am talking to you from the lovely San Francisco office. I can see the view.
KS: It’s beautiful.
Paid big money for that view.
KS: Yep, not too much longer, but yes indeed.
I’m here with Kara Swisher. Who is Kara Swisher? You know who Kara Swisher is, that’s why you’re listening to this podcast. What’s your title?
KS: Executive editor.
KS: Boss lady is what you call me.
Now, we’re partners.
KS: We are.
We are co-producing the Code conference.
We’re partners in life, that’s great. We did this a year ago.
KS: I’ve seen your partner.
KS: It’s like “Suits.” You’re the guy who doesn’t have the law degree, that guy.
You know, you’re the second person to reference “Suits” in the last day.
I was unaware that she was a “Suits” person.
KS: Oh my God, of course. Why else would you know her? She’s from “Suits,” she’s great on “Suits.” No longer, but she was great on “Suits.”
We’ll just do an hour on “Suits”?
KS: No, I could if you’d like.
What network was “Suits” on?
KS: I don’t know.
KS: I don’t know. USA, yeah.
It seemed like a USA show.
KS: USA, yeah.
If you’re still listening to us, Kara and I talked a year ago about tech and media and Kara’s life story, and it was a good interview so we thought we would run it back. We don’t need to go over Kara’s life story again, but a lot’s happened in the last year.
We talked a year ago and we were a little morose, post election.
KS: Yes. I remain morose, that’s not changed.
There was a brief flurry of real anger, I think, and fear post election, and then leading up to the inauguration, and then there was a lot of activity. Politically, I think, in journalism, and my sense is that while there’s a ton of really interesting and good and vibrant journalism going on, some of the energy that animated the anti-Trump movement has dissipated.
KS: No. I don’t agree with you.
No, you’re there.
KS: No, I think it’s worse than ever. The energy is there. I think there’s been great journalism done, and it’s morphed into all kinds of different ways we weren’t aware of. I think a lot of the sexual harassment coverage that’s happened in a lot of the publications, including the New York Times and the New Yorker and elsewhere, on our site and other sites, the Information, others, is a direct result, including Uber, the coverage around Uber, is a direct result of anger towards what happened in the election.
Even when we’re not mentioning Trump, we’re talking about …
KS: Oh, yeah. It’s an issue that’s become aware, if we can’t get him at some of the allegations, of which there are many, I think it was a reckoning moment. I think that’s the word everyone’s using, reckoning.
I do want to talk about sexual harassment and reporting. I was thinking about the Trump stuff today or yesterday, because the travel ban, that was the first big, I think, movement that galvanized tech in particular.
KS: Sure. Anti-tech thing.
But I mean, throughout the country, people were galvanized by it, but it became a thing for tech to grab onto and was not easy, but it was a thing where almost the entire tech community said, “We can’t stand for this, we’re going to fight it.” It’s a version of that-
KS: Until the lower courts …
No, no, but the Supreme Court said it can go ahead.
KS: It’s a little more complicated than that. They didn’t approve it.
Right, it’s not approved. My point is, is that that story, we put it in our fine newsletter, but no discussion. Everyone seems resigned to that.
KS: I think that’s the whole point of the Trump administration is wearing you down with persistent and consistent lies. I think it’s the exhaustion, the wearing down of. There’s a really good Tony Schwartz piece, he writes a lot about Trump. He wrote the book “The Art of the Deal.”
He’s the biographer.
KS: The biographer. This constant lying that keeps going on, and then you just keep lying and then people who tell the truth just give up, essentially.
We saw this coming in a lot of ways, right?
Some things that we thought about haven’t come to pass. I think a lot about the fact that right after the election, I think we imbued Trump and his circle with, we said, “They must be magicians, they must be able to see around corners, Bannon must be a genius. Jared Kushner really must know what he’s doing,” and I think …
KS: I didn’t think that, but okay.
As time goes on, they are who we thought they were prior to the election, it’s just now they’re running things.
KS: That’s the problem. It’s a culture of lying that you have to constantly be fact-checking. I think that’s what happens is the press starts to look like Miss Crabtree checking your homework, and then that’s not a really good stance to be in, right? You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and at some point, you equalize with the liar. It’s a he-said-she-said, when in fact it’s not at all. It’s a he-lied-you-correct, and that’s a problem, I think.
Right. I do think of all of the stuff … We acclimatized. Is that a word?
KS: Acclimated, actually, is the word. I think one of the issues is that because of this, because social media becomes so amplified, the lying becomes so amplified, and then you have all these voices of supporters of liars. It just becomes this ridiculous [situation] where facts don’t matter and there’s an argument for everything, which of course there isn’t. That puts media at a real problematic juncture. At the same time, I think it’s invigorated the media. I think I’ve never seen such good journalism done in a very short amount of time.
There was a lot of introspection after the election, on the press’s part. “What did we miss? What did we get wrong?” There was a lot of, “We got to go out into America and find Trump voters and talk to them.”
How do you think that has gone?
KS: I think there are Trump voters everywhere. I don’t think they’re in America. This whole thing about “real America,” I’m a real American. So are the people in the Midwest. Nobody gets to have the moniker of “real” Americans, there’s just different Americans. I think they have done a lot of those pieces where they go out and find people disagreeing with each other in Kansas, or Mark Zuckerberg takes a trip to whatever state he happens to be in at the time and meets the real people, there’s a lot of that going on. There’s been a whole bunch of Silicon Valley people who have done that, little trips, getting in vans. Steve Case just announced another new fund with JD Vance and a bunch of others around funding people in all kinds of parts. I agree with that, by the way. There’s talent everywhere, and to assume that there’s someone only in Silicon Valley or in …
It’s just easier, to get it in Silicon Valley, right?
KS: Of course it is. It’s also, they pattern match among people that look like them. I always have this concept that there is a little girl in Afghanistan who could solve cancer, but she’s never going to be able to, or can create the next quantum computing leap or something like that, but she’s never going to get the skills or the opportunity to do so, but the mind is there. It’s sitting there — almost trapped, in a lot of ways. I applaud all those efforts. I don’t know if you’re going to yield the next Facebook, maybe you will. I do think there is talent everywhere in the world.
Back to the media part of it. You didn’t say, “I’m going to go talk to middle America,” you said, “Screw middle America.”
“Screw my backwoods cousins who are Trump voters.”
KS: I see more of middle America, I did actually go. I went to Kentucky and West Virginia this year, I did.
What you did say is, “I want us to do … I want us to be more confrontational. I want us to be less stenographers. I personally want to do that.” Beginning of the year, you wrote a lot when we were egging you on to do it, right? “This is what Silicon Valley should do, this is how we should view Trump, this is how we should take him on.”
KS: I was correct. He was going to screw us on immigration, on transgender issues and all kinds of social issues.
It seemed like that was invigorating for you to write.
KS: It was, it was. I stopped writing as much as I should have, because I like the podcasting more. I think I say the same things in podcasts, almost continually. One of the things I was doing, I think, early in the year, and I got into a big fight with a Facebook executive at an event in Germany in January about their responsibility, and I’ve been talking about this almost persistently on the podcast, which was the abrogation of responsibility by social media companies, especially Facebook, Twitter, and some others, where they just give up on doing their jobs, essentially. I think that’s been a bell that I’ve been ringing a long time with them. They find it annoying, but as it’s turned out over the course of the year, they certainly dropped the ball on a lot of issues.
Let’s talk more about that, right? They’ve been dragged, now, into Congress.
KS: Dragged is the operative word.
Not the CEO’s, right?
KS: No. They sent the most boring people they could.
You can’t be surprised by that, right?
KS: Yes I am. Yes I am, because they like to come out and say things when it’s in their control and under their terms.
Exactly, when it’s under their control.
KS: Right. I don’t know, I think this is beyond their companies, it’s about protecting our democracy, and I think they should talk about it honestly.
You and I have this thing about how they’re media companies, they refuse to admit they’re media companies. Leaving that aside, whether or not they’re … Who cares what they’re called?
They honestly believe, I think, that they really should be a neutral platform where they’re not weighing in on one view or the other and I think they honestly believe that, left to their own devices, everything will work out, and that the good arguments will rise to the top.
KS: That’s ridiculous.
Do you agree that that’s what they think?
KS: No, I don’t think they think that.
What do you think they think?
KS: I think they think that they know these platforms are being badly misused and they don’t know what to do about it, and I think they’re confused and upset by …
Do you think they realize that now, or they’ve always known that?
KS: I think it was a slow burn, you know what I mean? It was a slow dawning on it, the penny dropped really lugubriously. I do think they do. I’ve talked to lots of Facebook executives that feel bad. They feel bad. They do understand something happened here that wasn’t good. I think Mark has talked about that several times, or he’s moved closer and closer to that acknowledgement.
His initial thing …
KS: Sheryl kind of said it in her visit, Sheryl Sandberg, said it in her visit to D.C., “Mistakes were made, we’re in the mistakes were made zone.”
Right. You did talk to them, right? Privately?
You’re still Kara Swisher, reporter.
KS: Yes, I do.
They’re not letting their …
KS: “Stop nagging us, Kara.” First it was, “Stop nagging us, stop being hysterical.” Then it was, “You have a point,” then it was, “Okay, you’re right. So what?” It shifts and shifts and shifts.
What’s interesting, I saw a bunch of them the other night at this Yuri Milner event, this Breakthrough Prize which Mark Zuckerberg’s involved in, and so is Sergey Brin, and stuff like that. There were a lot of numerous executives there from all the companies, and I think they understand something bad went awry. I think there’s just no question.
I think what’s interesting is when you talk about whether they’re media companies or not, that’s where we make a mistake of sticking with them. They’re a new kind of media company. They’re not media companies in the tradition of, say, New York Times or Fox News or even Fox News and others. They’re a media company in that the people primarily get their news from them. They are a gateway point and they should have more responsibility of what’s on their platform.
I just recently visited Evan Spiegel at Snapchat around the new Snapchat. They’ve got enormous control over that platform, and they use it, and they acknowledge it. He acknowledges that he can pick and choose who he wants on Discover. It’s a smaller platform, obviously, but he’s the only one who actually says, “Yes, I have responsibility of who’s on this platform and what people are getting from my platform.”
Right. It’s a different model, right?
He’s also, by the way, maybe it matters that he’s an LA person and not a …
KS: At least he understands what he’s doing and he doesn’t pretend. What’s interesting is it’s the same arguments.
I just had a really interesting woman from the U.K. in the office today, talking about AI, and she’s formed an AI ethics committee. One of the issues is the diversity of data that goes into AI. If you have crappy data sets or biased data sets, you’re going to get biased AI. If you have only white men designing AI, they’re not going to think of all the different ways, and so the next era of computing is going to be badly biased because of who makes it and what data they put in. Especially because AI learns from itself.
I’m not an expert here, but bad data in, bad data out. Crap in, crap out, I think that’s the expression. I think Silicon Valley is not thinking about the next stage, the same thing, the same way. They’re not thinking about the implications of AI and who creates it, what data sets are put in, how unbiased or biased they are. Is there a bias check on some of these algorithms? Things like that. And they should start thinking hard because this stuff is easy manipulatable, as Russia has shown.
Do you think they think we’re in the … We’re out in the woodshed, be there for a bit. This is going to pass over, we’re going to pay our fine or whatever it is and we’re going to do our act of contrition. By the way, we mean it, but we get to go back to what we were.
KS: I think they’re not going to pay a thing. I think there will be no regulation.
By the way, you and I agree on that. What do you think … The point is … Focusing this attention on them, it’s negative. Do you think they think, “We’re going to cycle through this?”
KS: Yes. Yes, I think they do think that. The most cynical of them know it. The others, they’re such earnest … You talk to them. “Oh, we feel bad.” I’m sorry. My issue is, they are the richest and most powerful people in the world, and they’re always acting like they’re victims, and that’s exhausting from a group of people that have an ability to actively change the world.
I was talking to, I think it was Susan Wojcicki, someone at YouTube, I think it was Susan. I had interviewed Reid Hoffman, who actually does answer questions, which is really refreshing, and in an honest way. We were at the ADL, which is the Anti-Defamation League, and I pulled up the Google search on ADL, and you got what you get. ADL.com, or whatever, the homepage. Here’s some stories about ADL. Here’s some issues recently about Charlottesville and ADL. It was all the ones you would expect to get.
When you went to YouTube and typed in ADL, you got alt-right, anti-Semitic videos, one after the next after the next, and it was astonishing that that was what you got. About 20, you got an interview with John Greenblatt, who’s the head of it, No. 20 on the search. I think I wrote Susan a note that said, “Hey, you have this company called Google that owns you that seems to be doing a pretty good job on search, why is YouTube search so bad? Why are we getting this vile stream of horror from YouTube, when you’re owned by the company who does search very well in regular circumstances?”
Again, YouTube ideologically believes that users left to their own devices are almost always going to provide better results than the big boss man.
KS: No, no.
That’s what they believe.
KS: Google doesn’t do it. Why do you get the exact opposite results from Google, which owns YouTube, versus YouTube where you get a stream of vile, anti-Semitic videos?
To be fair, there’s a story at least once a week where someone types in something into Google and the predictive search gives them all sorts of awfulness.
KS: I think Chrissy Teigen did a really good one, it was around boobs or something like that.
They do it constantly.
KS: At the same time, there is an example of left to its own devices, bias and hate will rise rather quickly. What’s incredible about the alt right is they have a really good sense of how to use these tools. So do the Russians. The alt right and Nazis seem to be very good at the internet.
ISIS was good at it, right?
KS: ISIS is good at it, all the people …
This is the thing that has spun my head around for several years now, and I keep getting surprised by it. I believe — because you wouldn’t know it but I’m an optimist — that …
KS: You are, Peter. Positive Peter is his name for 2018.
Positive fucking Peter is here. Technology, the internet, you spread it around the world and over time, it bends towards light, right?
KS: Yes, that’s what I have long believed.
People in benighted areas who don’t have access to information, you give them information, and over time, things get better. A lot of this is getting thrown back in our face. It’s like, “No, no, we’re actually going to take all these awesome tools you built and screw things up.”
KS: Yes. 100 percent. I think the Russia situation is exactly that, is that it’s so easy to manipulate. What they could anticipate, you could do it like Facebook Live, they could have anticipated a bullying incident. I don’t know why you wouldn’t think of that.
How do we prevent it? I’m not giving them the responsibility of preventing every awfulness of humanity. Humans can do, just literally, they always surprise you by how low they can go. You should have some anticipation of tools that people could put into place. Twitter, I think, utterly abrogated, it’s responsibility, and I think one of the reasons it’s seeing trouble is because it is not a place that is getting better. It’s like San Francisco is dirtier than ever. It’s not clean. You see it.
It was that initial rush, right, of Twitter when, “Oh look, we brought democracy to Egypt,” and they kind of believed it. It seemed grandiose at the time.
KS: No, it’s a great communications tool.
It was being used for good then, it was hard to imagine people were going to turn this thing around and do vile things with it.
KS: I think the problem is … Trump is the real problem on that medium. He owned it, he owns it. He owns that media.
He’s really good at it, right?
KS: He’s excellent at it. That’s my least compliment I want to give to someone.
Doesn’t use a computer.
KS: Dan Scavino, I guess, types it in for him. Clearly, the guy is channeling Trump, 100 percent. It’s a beautiful medium for him, as he would say.
His least-good Tweets are the ones where someone else has done them for him, right, because he’s uploaded stuff …
KS: He’s good at it, but I don’t think anyone can think the medium is better for him being on it. It’s just, a real nasty person is really good at nastiness.
Speaking of nastiness. I want to talk about sexual harassment.
We’ll take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, and then we will talk about nastiness. We’ll be right back with Kara Swisher.
I’m back here with Kara Swisher. As promised, we’re going to talk about nasty things.
Sexual harassment. You’d said at the beginning of this conversation that you think some of the reporting we’ve seen is a reaction to Trump.
It makes sense. A lot of stories about media, men, behaving terribly.
Starting to spread into government. Not that many about Silicon Valley …
And technology. Some. Not that many.
KS: You had a bunch. You had Dave McClure. There was one about Justin Caldbeck, who seems to misbehave quite badly. Just recently, Shervin Pishevar stepped down from his firm and from Hyperloop, another one. It’s been periodic and consistent. I think that we wrote one about Steve Jurvetson, who had some issues but it’s still unresolved. There’s been a bunch. There was one about Google and about a lot of excessive dating at that company and the tone it set.
Do you think that things are less bad in Silicon Valley and that’s why we’ve seen less stories, or do you think the reporting isn’t intense, or there’s not as many people trained on Silicon Valley?
KS: I’ve been here a long time. I don’t know of a Harvey Weinstein character, that I know of. I think Uber was that, for a lot of people. I think Uber, that tone, it’s more sexism than sexual harassment, although sexual harassment is there. We’ve written a bunch of stories about various … the India rape issues and stuff like that. I think there’s a heavy-duty gender discrimination.
I think some of it did come out of the Ellen Pao trial. Everybody saw and understood what that was. Even though she lost, I think it did set it off. It was a simmering fire that then was ignited by Susan Fowler’s memo, which the minute you read it, you’re like, “mm-hmm. That’s right.” It was one of those familiar things to a lot of women.
That’s about power …
KS: Sexism, gender differences. Diversity in general, the lack of.
Not the same volume of horrifying stories.
I know why they’re not being reported in …
Right, and I know why they’re not being reported in industries and parts of the country where there just isn’t media, but there’s a lot of media here, right?
KS: Yeah. I have been here awhile. I do not know someone in that level. I might have missed something. I think a lot of people wanted to attach it to … I’m trying to think. There just isn’t. Uber as a whole, I think, got that and is that, is the Harvey Weinstein of tech. The behaviors around partying, around the way women are treated, the way they break laws, the bro culture. I think that’s … It’s wider spread.
More to do with being loudish and assholey than …
KS: There’s serious sexism, 100 percent. One of the things that I think we haven’t done enough on — and I think it’s my own laziness, really. Some reporters have tried — is around the nondisclosure agreements that people have signed. I think there are dozens and dozens and dozens of those, that people have signed at Yahoo and Google and Microsoft, for certain, and all the companies. There’s not a company, I think, that’s escaped it. There’s a class action suit going on at Google right now around this, where there has been incidents of sexual harassment.
The way I split it up — I think I’ve said it to you and you said I should write an essay on it — was there are serial killers, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, obviously Matt Lauer at this point. There are murderers who murder one or two people and then get off somehow. There’s people who hit you with your car. They didn’t mean it, but they still were cloddish, did something dumb, like made a pass at a party or drank, something. What’s really hard is the continuum, is where do you say, “Okay, let’s let that go by,” because you don’t want to be the sex police.
At the same time, where it’s systemic within companies and there’s not reporting structures in place to deal with it, I think that’s where I’d like to focus is the HR departments that are inadequate, then the tools for reporting aren’t allowed, or aren’t adequate, essentially.
You said, “I don’t want to be part of a sex police.” There should be some kind of bright line between …
KS: Personal behavior.
Personal behavior versus …
KS: You could say … I think the Information tried. Reed Albergotti, he’s done some excellent work on this at Netflix, and Amazon, Roy Price, they’ve done some great stuff around Roy Price, that was an obvious situation.
That was Kim Masters.
KS: Kim Masters did that for the Information and then it continued in lots of other places. I think Netflix has certainly been affected because of Kevin Spacey and some others. I think just today …
KS: Right. Welcome to Hollywood, by the way, for them. Welcome to the downside of Hollywood.
I think one of the thing’s that’s important is that … They tried to do it on Google. I thought about this a lot, because I was very aware of the excessive dating that goes on there, and I was married to a Google executive, too, as is disclosed on our site. I think one of the issues was … We wrote all those stories about Sergey going out with a woman, he went out with Yugo, it went on and on. Does that filter down into the culture, and does that create a feeling of anything goes? That’s the only place where I do think, “Huh, does it?” That’s something to think about, real hard. If you have people at the top of a company who have different rules than everybody else, does everybody think it’s okay to behave like that?
Do you think that Silicon Valley, given the stereotype, but the … Antisocial’s the wrong word, but you’ve got a lot of dudes …
KS: Never went to the prom.
Haven’t spent a lot of time with people, period, and certainly not with women. Rough generalization here that they will have a harder time to figure out the new landscape. Can I do this?
They aren’t like everybody else.
KS: I think that’s an excuse. “They were such geeks, they never went to the prom, they don’t know how to talk to a girl.” Please. You don’t talk about girls’ boobs at work. Sorry, that’s really not the hardest thing to understand. You don’t exclude women from certain things. I think it’s an excuse used, “Look at these geeks. They don’t know how to treat a lady.” It’s just ridiculous. They don’t do it on the street. I’m certain they don’t do it in the street. I’m certain they don’t walk around and … I just don’t. I think that’s an excuse.
I don’t know how to pronounce his name. Damore?
KS: Damore, James Damore recode.
Right. At one point recently, “Oh, he’s aspergery, that’s why he did all this.”
KS: Whatever. Ass, the beginning part, I’m with.
The manifesto, the argument, I see echoes of that all the time with engineers, and not about sexism, but they say, “This is how my logic brain works,” and they’re quite proud of themselves. They’re questioning authority. I can see how that tips into, “Thus, women are less good at technology.”
KS: You can cherry-pick studies. There’s a million studies going the other direction.
Of course, but I can see how their brain works.
KS: I can, too.
And how that manifests itself.
KS: They’re scientific. “It’s a scientific thing, Kara.” It’s really interesting. What they don’t have is an idea of how they impact their people around them. I think there is an element of … No EQ, I guess. I don’t think James Damore still gets why he couldn’t work at Google. He just can’t. He can’t manage people. He doesn’t get the second step. The second step was if you were a woman. Same thing, there’s a whole lot of people now who want to go back to their jobs. I’m like, “You’re just not going to …”
It is a weird impulse to … It was his third year as an engineer at Google. Things are going well for you, right?
To have that, whatever that anger is, to write that memo. You’re writing to the 1 percent.
KS: I think he had other thoughts about women and people that were a little more problematic.
That’s what I’m saying. This wasn’t someone who was downtrodden and was …
KS: They’re all victims, Peter. Oh my God, the poor white guy can’t say what they want at work anymore.
Remember you were talking about typing stuff into Google and seeing what the results were?
KS: What are you doing? I came to play a game?
We’re doing this. We’re going to do it with Kara Swisher. We’re going to see what comes up in the predictive text.
KS: Peter Kafka will come up. I’ll be forever linked with you.
How do I do it, how do I use Google? Show me.
KS: You don’t know how to use Google?
KS: It’s super easy, there’s this box.
The bottom of the box, I wanted the results to pop up.
KS: You have to go to the Google main page.
Here, we’ll do this. This works just fine. Search is related to Kara Swisher.
KS: What is it?
First one: Kara Swisher stroke.
KS: Strokey. Strokey McStroke, which, as Peter likes to call him.
How long ago was your stroke?
KS: Five years ago.
You feeling better?
KS: I feel great.
You had a stroke because we went to Hong Kong. You were on a long flight.
KS: I have a hole in my heart, as many people who have dated me have said.
You were on a flight.
KS: Through the hole in my heart that I wasn’t aware that I had, I had a embolism, whatever, a clot went through. It was like a hole in one, the doctor said.
One day you woke up, and couldn’t talk.
KS: Couldn’t talk, just for a short time.
You got to skip being at the conference.
KS: Yes, I did, and you did a fantastic job. Stroke, that’s interesting that comes up first.
Stroke. Kara Swisher email, boring. Kara Swisher LinkedIn, boring. Kara Swisher podcast, fantastic.
Kara Swisher net worth.
KS: I’m really rich.
How rich are you?
KS: Who’s searching that? Just go to regular Google and pull it up.
I did it on regular Google, too. Kara Swisher mayor, that’s a classic one. Are you done talking about being a mayor?
If someone asks. No, no, no mayor.
KS: Mayor, oh yes. No, I’m not done talking about it. I’m still thinking about it.
Still a thing.
KS: Yes, maybe.
I only see you talking about it when people ask you about it in interviews.
KS: I don’t know yet. I’m one of these people who actually researches things before I do it. I don’t know. Some days I walk through the streets of San Francisco and I go, “This place is a mess. I can’t clean it up.” You know what I mean? I’m being honest. Do I want to do this? These people, do I really want to dedicate my life to cleaning up the mess?
It seems like you could just go walk around with the billionaires and just shake some free money …
KS: That’s the part I like, I like that part.
Say, “Look, we’re just going to buy our way out of this.”
KS: Something. It’s ridiculous, the city is so filthy and disgusting.
KS: It’s crazy. It’s crazy.
It’s way scarier.
KS: It’s a scary city. It has become a scary city.
Kara Swisher Uber. Self-evident.
KS: Self-evident. I feel good about our stories on Uber.
You used to get criticism for going soft on Uber.
Did something change?
KS: We were never that. Everybody was soft on Uber. Yes, it did. I think we did …
When did it click in for you? It was this thing …
KS: I think it should have been more.
Lots of people said, “Oh yeah those guys, they’re jerks.”
KS: “They’re jerks.” We knew so many jerks.
We didn’t write it.
KS: I don’t think we understood. It’s interesting, I had dinner with Dara, who’s the new CEO, and I said, “You know, I think the problem is, you’re a healthy human being. I don’t think you understand the toxicity of these people, and so you will react to them like a healthy adult does.” I think that’s what we were doing.
He was sort of a jerk like a lot of people, he was just jerkier than most. I think the level of toxicity was not known. I think since then, we’ve done a great job. We’ve helped — along with other publications — get rid of some of the CEOs. I think we’ve been an important force in that. Not just Recode, but New York Times, I think the Information has done a great job. I think they are not in their jobs because of the media. Media has done a great job in putting pressure. I think I’ve put a lot of pressure on that board, and so has a lot of people.
KS: He was. Remember?
It didn’t happen. That was when things were going comparatively well for them.
KS: Yes, that’s right. He was coming.
Before the bottom fell out.
KS: Before the report, the Holder report.
It was connected, right? He didn’t want to come, whatever the excuse. They gave us multiple excuses, some of which might have been valid. The stuff that came out was in part because of the people who were doing the reporting internally, about Uber, it came out and then spilled into stories that we and others wrote.
KS: Absolutely. I’m proud of a lot of our stories. I think all of them together really did. At this Christmas party for Uber, Dara stood up and he said, “You’re welcome for all the news.” He said, “And thank you for my job.” It was interesting, because I think we broke that story by seconds. Not very much. He was like, “I found out, I took my job …”
You said, “Here’s the new Uber CEO.”
KS: He’s like, “I guess I’m the new Uber.” His kids definitely found out through Recode, which was funny.
Have you talked to Travis since?
KS: I have not. I’ve reached out a couple times.
You’ve reached out?
KS: Mm-hmm. He’ll talk to me again.
When you meet, what do you think the opening line is going to be?
KS: He’s hard to talk to as it is. He’s not the easiest person to chit chat. A lot of people I’ve been really tough on speak to me now a lot, a lot of them do. I think that … I just had a really enjoyable interview with Steve Balmer. I don’t think I was his favorite, his fan favorite.
No. Did you talk basketball?
KS: No, we did not. We were onstage, we were onstage with him.
I don’t know, maybe he won’t. I just had some drinks with people we were really tough on in Uber, I’m not going to say who, but someone you would be surprised, I had drinks with.
I think that’s one of the things that people don’t get about you in general. You don’t have the glasses on, normally. When you have the glasses on, you look very fierce. You do aggressive reporting. You don’t have a lot of animosity towards the people who you’re writing about.
KS: Some of them, a few.
KS: I keep it to myself.
Very few, and you don’t look back.
KS: Or I tell them. No. I tell them. I tell them.
You’re not going to let some grievance simmer for years.
KS: No. But a good example, I get along very well with Arianna Huffington, but the other day we were at a thing and I said, “I think you’ve been an enabler of Travis, period, 100 percent.” She’s like, “No girl, I have not been an enabler,” I’m like, “Yes you have.” I tell them to their face, and I think that that’s different. I’m not mean about it, I just think I said, I think you’ve enabled.
I saw Bill Gurley, I think I said the same thing to him. “Good for you for now, but you enabled it.” I don’t pretend that I don’t feel that way. I think that’s what I do that makes it easier is I don’t have secret … I’m not friendly to them on the surface and then mean to them in the press. I think what I say to them personally or right in front of them … They’re never surprised.
You stab them in the front.
KS: The front. I think that’s helpful.
The last one was Trump. We don’t need to do Trump. We just spent 15 minutes with Trump.
KS: I know, Trump.
Frommer, you ready?
Dan Frommer: Mine are so lame. Recode, Apple park, Twitter, LinkedIn.
KS: What is yours?
DF: Nothing good.
KS: What is it?
DF: Certainly no net worth.
Let’s just start it up. That voice you hear, that’s Dan Frommer. He’s the editor in chief of Recode. He’s our special guest for this last segment of the Kara Swisher interview.
Dan, you missed it, but we did the Kara Swisher predictive Google results. She didn’t believe that net worth was one of the high ones, but here it is, it’s number four on real Google. It’s all the same. There’s also Chamath.
KS: Of course, because he’s my boyfriend.
I think because he’s googling you, probably.
KS: No, no, no. People love the podcast with him, I have to tell you. I don’t know why email is there, that’s so strange.
I think people are looking for your email.
KS: Twitter, Twitter is the top one and podcast is the top one, and Uber. Yahoo has moved down. Twitter, I’m on Twitter all the time.
How long have you worked at Recode now?
DF: More than a year and a half.
What is the one question you’ve been dying to ask Kara Swisher but haven’t got around to?
KS: He doesn’t know. Look at him, he’s not prepared at all. What a journalist.
Not prepared at all. Dan, you’re here. When this comes out, we’re going to have already launched the Recode 100.
KS: Talk about that.
Why did we do a Recode 100?
DF: A few reasons. I think the most interesting reason is that …
You can go to recode.net and look up the Recode 100.
DF: You can go to recode.net/recode100 and get directly to the list. Peter and I have worked on lists before. Most lists are a few editors sitting around in a room, scratching their chins, thinking about, “Who was that person I had lunch with a few weeks ago? They’re so interesting.”
I like that East Coast magazine, that other voice you used.
DF: We decided, let’s do something far more complicated and time consuming. Let’s try to make a list that is ranked and rated and judged and grouped by the people who actually know what they’re talking about, the peers, our community. The people who are actually working every day in tech and media and business, and who actually theoretically should know who’s actually doing really interesting work, and not just who managed to get onto our schedules this year. We put together a multi-step process, including public submissions from our community, an entire advisory team, which I built, which included some really big names. Troy Carter, the founder of Girls Who Code. I think it was 18 people, in the end.
KS: Diversity was important.
The idea was to expand the list of people we would normally put on a list. The list is people who, what’s your term? Kicked ass in 2017?
DF: Kicked ass, or won the year, whatever you want to say.
What was surprising to you, to see near the top?
DF: I think the biggest surprise was No. 2.
We can say it, right? This thing will appear in the future.
DF: I guess we can say it. Susan Fowler, who now, I believe, works at Stripe.
KS: She does.
DF: Who, with a blog post early this year, basically brought down Uber and probably the most dramatic executive shuffle that, certainly, I’ve ever seen.
KS: Cascading. She created a cascade of …
DF: Yeah. Let’s not credit Uber with everything that happened since then, but it was certainly one of the first situations where someone stood up and said, “Hey, it’s not okay what’s going on here.” We’ve seen a lot of that since then. I think that, especially in our field that we define as the Recode world, and certainly in the real world, Uber is one of the biggest …
KS: It was critical.
DF: Most interesting companies in years, and to see the absolute destruction of its executive team was huge.
KS: These guys were on top of the world. I think what’s interesting, it’s sort of like the Senator McCarthy hearings when, I’m blanking on the guy’s name, who said, “At long last, have you no shame?” I think that’s what it was.
I think it was good from an insider. I think a reporter could not have done that. Lots of people wrote about that, but I think from someone who was an insider, who did it in such a dispassionate … You should read that again, because it’s super dispassionate, it’s just …
I remember when it came out, it was a Sunday, and it was passed around Twitter. I said, “Oh, this is another one of those negative Uber stories, and it’s like a bunch of others we’ve seen. It’s for people on Twitter to talk about, and it will go away in a day.” It was different.
KS: No. It hit a nerve with everybody. It hit a nerve. When you finally go, “Oh yeah, okay, that’s enough. I’ve had enough of this.” I think it wasn’t just about Uber, it was about everything here. Everything.
Let’s look ahead. Next year? Let’s talk about the media business. Things are a little nervous-making right now. I just read about Mashable getting sold for not very much money, at least compared to the evaluation.
DF: Peter, this will be your last podcast.
This is my last podcast, thank you all for listening, thank you Mack Weldon.
KS: My socks are completely comfortable as I get laid off.
There’s a lot of consolidation happening, the very big companies.
KS: They should have sold a long time ago, right Peter? They had a chance to sell, Mashable. Didn’t they have nine chances to sell over the years?
They’ve wanted to sell …
KS: Before that, there was …
There was always, CNN was going to buy them, there was never …
DF: The famous Felix Salmon scoop.
You can go on Twitter and find that, I posted it. There’s always individual companies at the individual stories, right? Mashable’s story is different than BuzzFeed’s story. Do we think that we’re in for a year of retrenchment, broadly, in media?
KS: Go ahead, you first.
As people who run media companies?
DF: Sure. Look, I still stand by my age-old philosophy, which is if you do interesting work every day forever, you’ll be pretty much okay most of the time.
You could put that on a coin.
DF: That’s kind of the secret to succeeding in media is, be interesting every day, forever, and never stop. I think one of the things that makes me a little nervous, and maybe more so than I have been in the past, is the business model. It’s very clear that banner ads are not a thriving investment for future media companies. You see a lot of them doing things like custom content and sponsorships and native ads and …
DF: Podcasts, but building these agencies in house that do a lot more than just sell media. That works for some of them, but it certainly doesn’t work for a lot of them. I hear some of the smaller ones are losing deals right now to the New York Times, which has been very successful there, and every time I see a tweet of a chart that’s like, “Oh, Facebook and Google are going to take all the growth in online advertising next year,” even though I don’t think of Facebook and Google as really competing with most publishers, it’s not great.
KS: I’m of the opposite mind. I think it’s just not the time to draw back, actually. If you have a …
This is directed at Jim Bankoff.
KS: If you overspend too much like, I don’t know, BuzzFeed spent a lot on video. If you overspend, and they’ve talked about that, and they had a retrenchment, obviously, which you reported about, then maybe. If you are actually doing okay, the time is … This is exactly when you lean in. I think that’s a thing. Warren Buffet’s like that, lots of people, is you don’t …
Google was founded …
KS: Exactly, Google was founded in the middle of a mess, if you remember. I think if you have, like Dan says, if you have a really good … which you think is something people like, you lean into it. Lean into it, as long as it’s high quality, and you keep your costs in line and with what you’re doing. I don’t think it’s time to spend like crazy, but I do think it’s time not to … It’s just right now is when people give up, and they shouldn’t. That’s my feeling.
DF: People are not using less media.
KS: Yes, exactly.
DF: To me, one of the most exciting things are the development of these microsubscriptions, which at least for certain niche publications, are actually working quite well.
That’s encouraging. I think we all overestimate VC funding and how much money actually went into media, if you look, compared to what they spend on stuff they really care about. Even when we thought they were going nuts spending on media.
KS: That’s just Juicero. Really? Are we that worried, we’re not going to get money? Also, all this money that’s going to come washing into the system with the tax reform and with repatriation for these companies, there’s going to be so much money all over the place, for investment, and then where does it wash to? If you don’t keep experimenting with media and pushing forward, you really have nowhere to go, to me. It’s a real problem.
I agree. I’m generally optimistic, I’m super pessimistic about local news. I think that’s a really bad thing for our country.
KS: The Sinclairs own all of it.
There is no local news in most markets now. Even the stuff that’s there has been stripped out for years. No one is really trying hard to solve that problem.
KS: I just was thinking that today, it’s … Oddly enough, I was walking to work. I walk to work every day and I was walking past the Chronicle on Mission Street and I thought, “I would love to run this thing.” You know what I mean?
Mayor and publisher of the Chronicle.
KS: No, but I was thinking, wouldn’t that be more … Could you be more effective? I was thinking local in general. Is there a way to do it? Now, of course, you’ve got the issues around unions and facilities, they own the buildings, and everything else. At the Chronicle, you’re being surrounded by … The problematic … All of the different issues around publishing, including local advertising and everything else, because I started off as a local retail reporter at the Washington Post and so I have some knowledge of this. I think it’s a really interesting business issue because you’re right, there’s all kinds of interest in local news, too. There really is. How do you deliver that?
DF: Do you have citizen, crowdsourced crime reporting?
KS: No. I’m sure we do. I’m sure we do.
Here’s the problem, all of the local news experiments are all based on, “Well, what if got people to give us news for free?” like LA Weekly did? “Or if we crowdsourced it, or if we took up the other blogs that are covering local news and then aggregated it?” No one actually wants to spend money hiring someone to go to City Hall and ask the mayor what happened.
KS: Right, it’s a really interesting problem. It would be a very interesting thing to work on, I would think. I found it, I was just thinking all the different fantastic challenges it would pose.
This headline is not as sexy as “Kara Swisher’s running for mayor” but “Kara Swisher’s going to run a local news empire.”
KS: How do you influence local, how do you influence politics, locally and nationally? I think, for example, the reason i would be interested in mayor is because you could have national implications, because San Francisco is a national and global city and it acts like it’s not. That’s my interest in San Francisco is this is where everything’s happening and why don’t we have more impact?
Look at you. You really did perk right up here, right at the end.
KS: I’m just saying.
Local news, I did not realize this was going to get you.
KS: It was funny, I did that today as I was walking.
DF: Do you think it’s uniquely problematic in America, though, or are there places where local news either has a different model or maybe it’s that local news was only really ever successful …
KS: Look at London. London has like 90 newspapers, right? Why is that? People read them, they really do.
DF: Japan, Tokyo, too. Although, I don’t know how free the press is in places like that.
KS: No, there’s so many voices in London. Tell me, why does London have so many?
DF: I have no idea.
KS: People read them.
Honestly, I’m more concerned about Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.
KS: It boiled down to one, that’s what happened, and then that one was at risk, then when Walmart came into town — it went way back — when Walmart came into town it didn’t advertise locally, and all the department stores closed, and classifieds suck.
My big worry is that there isn’t a local market for this and then people were buying these things because it was habitual, and because that’s where you learned … how to buy a car and it’s where you had to get sports scores. Once you stripped all that stuff out, some if it’s Google’s fault, some of it’s eBay’s fault, blah blah blah. There’s actually not much of an appetite …
KS: What about the Washington Post?
The Washington Post, their model is not to be a local paper, right?
KS: Not anymore.
That is what Jeff Bezos did. “I’m going to throw a ton of money at you guys, and you guys become a national newspaper again.”
KS: As it happens, Washington happens to be an interesting local place.
It’s a good time to have bought a national newspaper.
DF: Right. When I go home to Chicago and look at the Tribune, it’s sad how thin it is. That’s the No. 3 …
KS: LA Times, our friend Ross Levinsohn over there, trying to fix things up there with those crazy Tronc people. Good luck, Ross.
Good luck, Ross. We’re going to leave it there, we’re going to wish Ross Levinsohn good luck at the LA Times.
KS: He called me, he said, “Would you be interested in being the editor?” I was like, “What? No. Like, no.”
DF: Oh, good.
Now they got Lewis D’Vorkin instead.
KS: I think he was calling everybody, like in a dial-o-rama and stuff like that.
Good luck, Ross. We’re going to leave it there.
Thank you Kara, for coming back on the podcast. We’ll have you back again in a year.
Thank you, Dan, for guest hosting. I’ll see you guys in February.
KS: Code Media.
That’s going to be awesome. We’ll talk about all this stuff again.
KS: So many things.
But with more people.
KS: Let me just say, that is a great conference. I would actually pay for that conference.
You have to pay this year.
KS: I know, I’m going to.
There’s a retrenchment.
KS: My net worth is coming up on Google. I have to say, I do always learn something, and it’s very confusing, actually, because I learn lots of different things, and I don’t know what to think, and I like that.
You’ll be onstage for part of it, asking questions.
KS: Yes, I will, but I find it very helpful …
In the audience listening.
Kara Swisher says “very helpful,” that is what we’re going to go with.
KS: Very helpful.
Recode – All Go to Source
Author: Recode Staff
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