The media’s coverage of Silicon Valley has undergone a sea change in the last two years.

November 28, 2018 | Hollywood


Good morning. Google's Sundar Pichai has agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next week to address Republicans' (somewhat ambiguous) suspicions that the search giant has an anti-conservative bias.


• And ... Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg will meet tomorrow with Color of Change, one of the activist groups that was targeted by the opposition research firm Facebook enlisted to go after its critics.


The Big Picture: How Tech Journalism Went Political — The media’s coverage of Silicon Valley has undergone a sea change in the last two years as reporters who once wrote dispassionately about product launches and personnel changes have taken a more aggressive and adversarial stance toward big tech companies and their leaders.


• Tech founders who were once celebrated for their innovations are now scrutinized for evidence of hubris, ill will and mismanagement.


• The negative impacts of their technology and services are highlighted, while the positive impacts are often ignored or taken for granted.


• Tech companies feel under siege: If the old line of inquiry was “What does your company do?” today it is more often, “What is your company hiding?”


How We Got Here: The shift in tone became widespread following the revelations of Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign — but the level of scrutiny may have been even more intense due to the unexpected outcome of that election.


Donald Trump’s victory surprised much of the media and the American public (including, reportedly, Trump himself). That meant that any evidence of foul play was likely to raise greater concern than it would have had the outcome fallen in line with conventional expectations.


• The revelations about Russian meddling also fit neatly into an ongoing political and geopolitical story about foreign influence in American politics, opening the floodgates for sustained attention on big tech from national media outlets.


• Facebook's inability to get ahead of its problems, and its penchant for exacerbating those problems by downplaying or denying them, fueled the perception that big tech might have nefarious designs on society. Mark Zuckerberg's awkwardness as a public speaker only reinforced the problem.


The Point of No Return: The anxiety over Trump's presidency and the antipathy toward Facebook made the Cambridge Analytica scandal ripe for national outrage when it landed in March of 2018. The upshot was that Americans came to terms with Facebook's core business model: collecting and harvesting people's personal data for profit and growth.


• The recasting of Facebook as a dangerous data mining company forced the public to rethink the technology industry's motivations generally.


• The scrutiny has been exacerbated by prominent Facebook critics in Silicon Valley (see: Tim Cook, Marc Benioff) who have faulted social media companies for violating the public trust. Such criticism has the added benefit of deflecting negative attention away from these critics' own companies.


• News organizations, sensing the rise of a tech backlash that was somewhat of their own making, set their sights on Silicon Valley's most powerful companies and sought out scandal and controversy, mimicking their approach to politics.


The Good News: Silicon Valley is finally getting the scrutiny it avoided for more than a decade. ... The Bad News: The premium on controversy allows less room for nuance and a comprehensive picture of big tech's positive and negative impacts on society.


New Bedfellows: Tim Cook and Ivanka Trump — The Apple CEO and First Daughter met yesterday in Wilder, Idaho, to oversee the implementation of Apple's new job training initiative there:


• In a forthcoming interview with ABC's Good Morning America, Ivanka Trump calls Cook a "very good friend" and credits him with teaching her about how to better train American workers.


• Apple signed a Trump administration "Pledge to America’s Workers" this summer and committed to training 10,000 people.


• Speaking to GMA, Cook highlights the importance of collaboration: "The largest thing that either prevents or makes people successful is the ability to collaborate," he says.


What mystifies the Facebook set: How Cook has managed to be Silicon Valley's good guy and keep Apple above scrutiny while the rest of big tech is being called to repent. Flashback to March, when Kara Swisher asked Cook what he would do if he were Zuckerberg?  His answer: “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”


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Talk of Tinseltown: Bob Iger's Audi Drive — Disney is partnering with Audi to develop what officials at the automaker are calling a "new type of media" to entertain passengers in driverless cars, CNET's Chris Paukert scoops.


The two companies will reveal the technology at the CES trade show in January. Nils Wollny, Audi's head of digital business strategy, raises the curtain:


• "I'd call it a new media type that isn't existing yet that takes full advantage of being in a vehicle."


• "We created something completely new together, and it's very technologically driven."


• "There will be a commercialization or business approach behind it. It's not something where two friends come together to [start] something vague. ... We have a very specific plan."


The Big Picture, via Paukert: "An integral part of the promise of self-driving cars is that autonomy will recover motorists' time so they can use it for other pursuits. ... Audi calls this newly recoverable time 'The 25th Hour,' and it's devoted much time and resources to thinking about it."


Hold that thought ... "Self-driving vehicles, despite being the subject of breathless media reports and in automakers’ strategies, remain years from being available to private owners," per NYT's Norman Mayersohn.


New Media, Shifting Down: First Facebook, Now YouTube — Fresh off the heels of Facebook's decision to rein in the number of shows it will buy, YouTube is planning to scale back its scripted output, per THR's Natalie Jarvey:


• "The Google-owned platform is expected to scale back its scripted output beginning in 2020, [per] a source with direct knowledge of the company's plans."


• "The YouTube Originals team ... has started informing creative partners about the shift, per multiple sources, one of whom describes the pullback as 'a serious budget reduction.'"


The Big Picture: Creating and marketing premium content isn’t nearly as easy as the tech giants assumed. As I wrote in yesterday's 'Market,' big tech doesn’t have an automatic claim on the premium content game just because it’s big, rich and disruptive.


Market Links


Jeff Bezos makes an aggressive push into health care (WSJ)

Mark Zuckerberg faces a diversity problem (BuzzFeed)

Laurene Powell Jobs buys Pop-Up Magazine (Recode)


Condé Problems, or How to Kill Ten Brands in a Year Bob Sauerberg is stepping down as Condé Nast chief, a move that signals further retrenchment for the diminished magazine publisher.


The Backstory, via my colleague Claire Atkinson:


• "The company has struggled to find its footing amid an industry shift to digital that has meant fewer paid ad pages, which make up the core of each glossy publication."


• "In the past few years Condé Nast has slashed costs, laid off staff, merged magazines, and overseen the retirement of some of its boldfaced — and most expensive — names, including Graydon Carter, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair."


What's Next: Sauerberg's replacement will hold the title of "global chief executive" and head both Condé Nast and Condé Nast International, which until now have operated as separate sister companies.


What Comes After That: The conventional wisdom among my Condé sources is that a few core brands will survive — Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker — while others die or are folded into the marquee titles.


Then someone in Silicon Valley buys them. 'Natch.


What's Next: Radhika Jones adds Stormy Daniels, Bob Woodward and Ryan Coogler to the Vanity Fair Hall of Fame.


See you tomorrow.

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