Silicon Valley & Parachute Journalism

A longtime ago, when the only grey in my life was the soot from traffic on my white shirt, I would often read stories in the western media about India, which had a weird sense of deja-vu about them. Take one part of these (all true) topics — exotica, color, poverty, income gap, gender discrimination, dowery and political skullduggery — add a western reporter, a nice fancy hotel room, shake hard. And voila, you would have your article (or series of articles) about India.

The New York Times was the most egregious of the western papers and if you check their archives, you will see what I mean because every new India correspondent pretty much wrote the same set of stories. I would often wonder — how is it that these smart people can’t find interesting stories in a country as messy and fantastical as India. There were more tragedies in that country and there were more uplifting tales — especially as a country tried to grapple its future and its past. (Criticism of their past practices aside, it is also fair to point out the Times has become infinitely better in its coverage of India, China and other places, often doing better work than the local publications as in case of Times’ China corruption coverage.)

In sharp contrast to the Times and others was an old India hand — Mark Tully, who worked for BBC. He was your typical Englishman and was mocked for having gone native. And yet, his stories and reporting had verve and depth, that only comes from knowing the beat. He found tales nobody else did — and if you can find his book No Full Stops in India and read it, then you will know what I mean. He knows modern Indian history better than anyone. William Dalrymple (of The Independent) was another fun foreign correspondent to read and he too had gone native. It was quite a delight to catch up with their work.

When working for Forbes, I pointed out the dichotomy to my then boss, David Churbuck and he quipped: “Classic Parachute Journalism.” According to Wikipedia, “Parachute journalism is the practice of thrusting journalists into an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience.” This is a term that has typically been used in context of reporters sent to foreign lands to cover hot stories.

Lately, that foreign land seems to be Silicon Valley. 

From Vanity Fair to Elle magazine, suddenly everyone is parachuting their people into Silicon Valley. Vanity Fair which typically covers Hollywood, the East Coast Rich and occasionally the famous and fabulous from around the world is putting their stock in trade is writing — a blend of breathless, salacious and fact in a well crafted narrative — to work on technology stories.

When tech was hot at the turn of the century, Vanity Fair showed up lugging along its neon lights and fog machines. A few years later, when Google went to the stratosphere, the pattern was repeated. Has the New York Magazine, run out of stories about New York and its insecurities and is thus sending reporters by the plane load to cover Silicon Valley — each one hoping to write about this tech-thing! Have Wolves of Wall Street become so docile that they don’t merit a proctology exam?

The narrative is fairly pre-conceived for these arriviste. The latest example is BusinessWeek’s cover story by Joel Stein. It was shocking to read this article, considering the magazine actually employs two of the finest technology writers — Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance — in Silicon Valley who have a much better understanding of the Valley. Stein’s piece is a strung together collection of what seem like blogposts from Valleywag and other technology blogs, with a few interviews to break up the predictability.

From my standpoint, it was disappointing to find absolutely nothing new, insightful or informative in the cover story — apart from what we already know — the systematic issues in the Silicon Valley culture are real, big and have been shrugged aside for too long — they are the armpit, I admit, smelly and disgusting.

To say that you are “changing the world” is childish and presumptuous and there is a lot of BS in the valley about “changing the world”. What I don’t have a problem with is people actually having the arrogance to try and reshape the world around them — and that is what great entrepreneurs and doers do! Without that thinking, we wouldn’t have Intel. We wouldn’t have Arista Networks or the iPhone or the Amazon Web Services or Netflix or Square.

A great magazine story when not breaking new ground is supposed to take what has been reported in the past and move the story forward. In this case, the writer Stein it seems didn’t really know the subject or understand or didn’t really care about trying to understand the deeper issues.

It was an opportunity for what is normally a fine business magazine to tell the real story — and not sex it up with a cover of stereotypes. That cover is a Brooklyn hipster interpretation of the Silicon Valley story. Needless to say, I can take the pre-conceived narratives from non-business publications but someone like BusinessWeek needs to pause and look in the mirror and approach the challenges posed by Silicon Valley culture and the its impact on culture at large in a more thoughtful way.

The problems facing our society due to embedding of digitization into our lives are so profound, so much deeper and so much more fundamental. They are so complex that they don’t fit the pre-conceived narrative of the media establishment. As I outlined in my column for Gigaom, things are complex, nuanced and difficult to encapsulate for a click-driven culture that dominates the media these days. Even the venerable, The New Yorker, which has done a remarkable job of trying to understand the complexity of modern times has a mixed record. Some writers such as George Packer and Ken Auletta, showing their mastery of the craft and ability to parse nuance are exceptional. Others are middling at best and infuriating at worst.

The nuance is hard to grasp and perhaps that is why I hold out hope from the likes of New Yorker, but in the end, it is about context, historical knowledge and ability to connect dots — much like the old India hand, Mark Tully. Next time perhaps Bloomberg Businessweek wants its own people to take a crack at the complexity of times — instead parachuting a celebrity writer! 

A letter from Om

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