Responsibility in technology reportage: the case of Talking Points Memo
The subject of this post may be rather obscure, particularly for those of you who are not from the United States, or do not pay attention to American political media. I hope you’ll excuse me, though, because I think it’s important to examine some of the ways that claims on behalf of the corporate use of information technology are normalized and made to seem natural by their treatment in the media.
My concerns here focus on Talking Points Memo, a political blog whose tendency, I think, it would be fair to describe as center-left by US standards (and center-right by those generally obtaining elsewhere). Over the past year or so, under the leadership of site founder and editor Joshua Marshall, TPM has been seeking to broaden its coverage beyond the party-political, with the clear ambition of supplanting brands like the dying Newsweek as a trusted general-news outlet. The site continues to position itself as “the premier digital native political news organization in the United States,” but I’m willing to bet that “political” isn’t destined to remain there forever. This is a site with its eye on the main chance.
Part and parcel of this effort has been a significant expansion into science and technology reportage, both handled by a TPM staffer named Carl Franzen. Ordinarily, I would welcome a political site — especially one as associated with the notion of rigorously-vetted crowdsourced investigative journalism as TPM — taking on the responsibility of covering a topic as salient to our choices in everyday life as emergent technology, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t begin to measure up to my expectations.
In fact, it’s hard to how overstate how disappointed I am with the quality of TPM’s technology coverage. In most articles appearing under Franzen’s byline, you’ll note, the content of a press release or a sympathetic interview is transcribed word for word into the TPM post, lending the site’s imprimatur to whatever claims that are being made by the article’s subject. At no time does Franzen appear to challenge what he’s being told, seek any other informed perspective, or simply attempt to validate a proffered representation as factually accurate.
The most recent example of Franzen’s credulity is an almost perfectly ahistorical post accepting Google’s claim that their prototype Field Trip app somehow constitutes an example of “ubiquitous computing”; indeed, the piece comes perilously close to crediting Google with inventing ubiquitous computing in the first place. (And yes, those of you familiar with the ubicomp discourse will not in the slightest be surprised to learn that in among the hype recapitulated by Franzen is the inevitable claim to offer a “seamless” experience.) Note that Franzen allows Google VP John Hanke 163 words: over half the length of his 299-word post.
Here, in a piece entitled “Cooler Than Facebook” — and how the marketing department must have loved that — Franzen makes a pitch on behalf of Google Plus:
In the near future, social networking may involve navigating a stylishly animated Google Plus on your desktop computer while resting comfortably in a chair a few feet away, using your smartphone as a remote control.
What is this but a unchallenged, unexamined and limpidly transparent paraphrase of a Google team’s own description of their demo? It’s practically Eisenhower-era in its depiction of benevolent corporate forces deployed on behalf of your convenience and comfort. (“Resting comfortably in a chair,” you say? Why, Top Men are working on it even as we speak!)
It’s not just Google that gets this treatment. Here Microsoft “bring[s] the ability to accurately scan 3D objects to the masses,” with their “eye-popping, incredibly detailed” Kinect Fusion offering. And here is a selection of other Franzen pieces that read like press releases: for Barnes & Noble, eBay, Tesla…these, mind you, are just from TPM’s technology coverage over the last sixty days.
I think you may be beginning to sense a pattern here, no? From my perspective, though, the most galling example of Franzen’s work is probably this piece on Control Group, which not merely reads like the kind of flackery you find on PR NewsWire, but does so on behalf of some particularly pernicious claims.
It’s not just that Franzen’s gee-whiz tone is annoying, although it does annoy me. It’s the willingness to carry water for an agenda that would certainly be sinister if it had not been so thoroughly debunked over the past twenty years. Consider this unquestioned statement from Control Group CEO Campbell Hyers:
[I]n a corporate environment, you’d be able to swipe your badge and instantly have a conference room itself invite all of the right participants to the meeting and bring up the right slides on a projector screen and then log the whole conference as an audiovisual file later.
A more knowledgeable reporter would have spotted that Hyers’s pitch, far from being futuristic, is actually a string of clichés reaching straight back to Mark Weiser‘s 1990s tenure at PARC (and, at that, long problematized). This knowledge is somewhat arcane, of course, and it may not be particularly realistic to expect a cub reporter to have immersed him- or herself in the detailed history of the field being covered. But surely a more diligent reporter might have reached out to known sources of insight in that field, and attempted to vet the essential contours of the story he or she was being told. And that’s without touching the airless, hegemonic notion that conference rooms and employee identity badges and PowerPoint presentations are the natural order of things.
Franzen manages to accept at face value all of the claims made about the company’s putative “operating systems for physical space,” in a way that’s curiously at odds with TPM’s ostensible progressive agenda. (In fairness, the problems with Franzen’s coverage precede his arrival at TPM. Here’s an older, similarly breathless piece he contributed to Atlantic Wire.)
And it’s just that tension — between the latent logic of so many of these pieces and anything we might fairly think of as progressive politics — that prompts me to write this. I don’t pay much attention to the gadget-oriented technology blogs, with their pong of adolescent-male wish fulfillment, and I certainly can’t abide the Valley-centric tech industry coverage of other “technology” sites. But I don’t expect insight or critique from either of these directions — in fact, I’d be foolish to do so. By contrast, I surely do expect it from a site that not only, in every other realm in which it operates, upholds the honorable tradition of investigative journalism, but clearly does so in the name of a particular kind of politics.
I’m not asking that Talking Points Memo transform itself into, say, the New Left Review. But questioning the logic of the arguments that are made before the public, seeking alternative perspectives: these functions are both core to TPM’s mission, and key to the value it represents itself as providing to its audience. Lending its hard-won imprimatur to transparent PR and marketing tripe — on not a few occasions, again, literally word for word — not merely does not establish any new domain of credibility, it undermines whatever reputation for independence and quality the site currently enjoys. Franzen and, by extension, Marshall’s site are getting played. They’re being used. They would resent it, howlingly, from a corrupt Congressman or a racist sheriff, and they ought to resent it every bit as much from corporate flacks and clueless technoutopians.
What’s worse is that, given contemporary habits in media consumption, it is not at all unlikely that Franzen’s is the only coverage of the technology sector TPM’s core audience will be exposed to. TPM’s embrace of his work could all too easily lead otherwise-sophisticated readers to believe that viewpoints like the ones expressed in Carl Franzen’s writing are fully normalized and universally agreed-upon — if not, god forbid, the leftmost marker of acceptable opinion. This is precisely how consensus realities are established, how discourse policing works; if “even the left-leaning Talking Points Memo” endorses a point of view, anyone quibbling with it is by definition outside the bounds of the discursive community, and of fair comment. Like any publisher, in other words, Marshall has some responsibility for anticipating how the color of approval his act of publication lends to things is likely to be used, particularly by those ideologically unsympathetic to his other aims.
The old feminist adage reminds us that “the personal is the political,” and it’s precisely the same here: every technology comes with a conception of our role in the world bundled in it. It’s vital, particularly for those of us who think of ourselves as somehow being “on the left,” or in any way working toward a progressive agenda, that we ask how technologies can serve ends inimical to whatever goals we believe are worth the effort. And it’s unquestionably the prerogative of a would-be independent news outlet to apply to ostensibly innovatory products and services some standard of evaluation deeper than whether or not they are “cool.”
My bottom line is that I find the tone, tenor and, most importantly, the content of Franzen’s coverage sharply at odds with the progressive tradition I interpret Talking Points Memo as trying to uphold. I recognize some of the shortfalls in his work as the clear consequence of the intense pressure on an online outlet to publish, on an online writer to make word count. But that pressure doesn’t justify outright stenography. If Talking Points Memo is not willing or able to bring the exact same level of discernment, skepticism and professionalism to their technology coverage that Marshall would demand of any political coverage appearing under the site’s name, perhaps they ought to consider stepping back from the ambition of offering that coverage.