A recent reporting assignment gave me occasion to call the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to ask for a comment.
This is how it happened: I went to cdc.gov, found their press page, got a telephone number, and called. An operator answered promptly, and took down my name, media organization, the scope of my story, and my deadline. The very next day I had an email from a press officer, who offered a link to some background information and an invitation to speak with an expert on the record. I accepted her offer, and the press officer set up the interview.
A few days later, I was having an on-the-record conversation with the expert from the CDC whose titles include Senior Epidemiologist and Commissioned Officer with the US Public Health Service. She answered my questions with the full authority of her expertise, and as a representative of the CDC as a whole. I interviewed her for about fifteen minutes and thanked her for her time.
I didn’t go to journalism school, but I imagine the skills I deployed here as extremely Journalism 101—you need a voice from the government, so you go through the appropriate channels to get one. But after hanging up with the expert at the CDC, I felt totally overcome with that teary-eyed patriotism you can get watching a good episode of The West Wing. For I, a journalist and a citizen, could work my way through an established system built for the sole purpose of allowing me to connect with a government official—and not just a PR flak, but an expert—who could speak with me on behalf of the government.
What’s remarkable about this is its unremarkableness. That the existing public relations infrastructure is taken for granted, and that it should be taken for granted.
Because in the Bay Area, it isn’t taken for granted at all. In fact, the norms of large institutions in the tech industry are so different that it makes one marvel that those kinds of norms are norms at all.
Which is all to say—it’s time that we talk about Silicon Valley’s war on public information.
In my career thus far as a journalist, I’ve covered national politics on Capitol Hill and local politics in Baltimore. I’ve interviewed internationally famous artists and designers, and I’ve interviewed normal everyday people who had never given an interview before in their life.
Convincing a potential interview subject to talk to you on-record is always a part of the job, and it can be a tough part of the job—and it should be a tough part of the job, because your interview subjects often have nothing to gain from talking to a journalist. It is incumbent upon the journalist to earn subjects’ trust and do right by them.
But nothing prepared me for when I first started seeking comments from tech companies.
To be clear, I’m not talking about trying to land an exclusive one-on-one with a billionaire founder, or getting the inside scoop on how a new world-altering piece of technology works. I’m talking about basic background information on a company’s baseline functions.
The first time I reached out to Facebook, I was writing an article about a “social media detox” I was doing. Facebook, sensing my non-activity on the site, had started sending me emails about what I was missing out on—how many notifications, how many friend requests, and so on. I thought the emails were funny, so I tried forwarding one—but when I did, the email vanished. It was gone from my inbox, and it wasn’t in my sent folder. This happened three times.
My editor recommended I ask Facebook if this was real or even possible. For all I knew, it could have been a problem with my email, or some kind of server outage. Or maybe I had hallucinated the whole thing (thrice)—or maybe Facebook was embarrassed about these messages and had devised a way to make them disappear. I was also hoping to tell Facebook about my detox, and see if they had any thoughts about how to use the social network without getting addicted.
The only press contact I could find was an email address. When I wrote, I got an automated kickback email, followed by nothing. I wrote again, and again got nothing. My deadline hit, and I had to publish without a comment from Facebook, or even an acknowledgement of my story.
I have no delusions of grandeur that this story mattered all that much to Facebook, or that my name carries so much weight that a non-response is appalling. But still—I would have at least expected that a human being would have written with something like, While we can’t comment on this matter specifically, here’s some background information that might be helpful—or, at the very least, a No, we will not participate in your story. Since 2015, I’ve sought comment from Facebook for three other stories, including this one. To date, I have never been able to reach an actual human being.
And so, given Facebook’s ubiquity, size, and power, I got to wondering—does Facebook have an ethical responsibility to respond to journalists like me?
I asked a number of journalists what it’s like to try to get Facebook to go on the record. One was Sam Sanders, a reporter and podcast host with NPR. Sanders put it very plainly: “Oh, they’re the worst.”
Sanders, unlike me, has been able to reach human beings at Facebook, and, also unlike me, has been able to get them on-record—but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Sanders describes a pattern: “They ignore you, they ignore you, they ignore you, and then when they finally respond to you, their usual MO is that your story is wrong, your source is wrong, everyone’s lying to you.” All of these conversations, of course, take place on background—journalist-speak for not on the record.
Sanders says this happens literally every time he tries to get a comment from Facebook—and the same goes for Twitter. “Their default is to not give an interview, or not give a statement. So I have to spend a lot of time convincing them why it’s important to have them in the story. It’s just annoying.” When he does get people on record, Sanders says, “the statements they give you are milquetoast.”
Talking with Sam Sanders and other journalists for this story confirmed my suspicion that trying to get big tech to talk to you is, in Sanders’s words, the worst. But ought we expect more? Given that Facebook can afford anything it wants, should it have an active public relations presence?
Facebook wouldn’t comment for this story—no surprises there—but I did get some insight from a tech industry public relations professional whom I will call C (not her real first initial). C works at a PR firm in New York City, and has represented several large firms that you have definitely heard of.
The first surprising thing C told me was that she was surprised I couldn’t get through to a human at Facebook at all. “I just don’t see how you are strategically able to manage the communications process if you don’t talk to the press,” she told me. (Amen.)
C does attribute some of big tech’s reluctance to talk to journalists to familiar Silicon Valley tropes: that founders can be thin-skinned man-babies, that the lack of institutional memory can make everything seem transactional, that the sheer amount of money flying around can make everyone inside of a company feel like they’re living in a pressure cooker. But C also revealed aspects of the PR process that made Silicon Valley’s media silence more understandable.
“There’s such a sheer fucking volume of interest, if they can’t get back to a journalist by their deadline, they might just blow them off,” she said. Which seems obvious, though there is a component that I hadn’t considered—that at least some of the difficulties that journalists face when reporting on a place like Facebook are self-inflicted.
“I wouldn’t say the fault lies with journalism, but it’s a two way street,” C tells me. “I’ve had experiences where I’ve represented a big consumer brand name, and journalists I’ve never interacted with will come running. But if I have an equally interesting, arguably more important company, trying to get [a journalist] on the phone was like pulling teeth.”
What’s more, says C, is that the high-output, burn-and-churn deadline environment in which many tech journalists work often leads them to publish erroneous stories. “When you get the story wrong, and I can’t reach you to change it, it’s important to me because now I’ve got an investor calling wanting to know why X-Y-Z outlet says we’ve only been valued at $5 million when it’s really $10 million. That might seem very small to the journalist but that could be the life or death of my business.”
C isn’t the first person to describe the dangers of an imprecise, hype-buying press—especially when it collides with unethical business practices in the Valley. For that, we need look no further than the chilling case of Theranos, the med-tech startup once valued at $9 billion, and which ultimately collapsed when it was revealed in 2016 that none of their technology actually worked. Reporting by John Carreyrou for the Wall Street Journal and Nick Bilton for Vanity Fair demonstrated how an uncritical press—one seduced by the product, unconcerned with limited access, and propelled by breakneck quotas and deadlines—helped create an environment where snake oil was peddled freely.
“It feels a lot like Trump…like, how could we have missed this coming?” says C of Theranos. “At some point, somebody has to do due diligence. And I don’t know who that is.”
Journalists would be my pick for the task—though, to be sure, it’s one that would be made a lot easier with transparency and cooperation on the part of tech companies. And so, I return to my initial question: does Facebook have a moral responsibility to return my emails?
C does think it’s weird that I couldn’t even get a human being at Facebook to decline participating in my story, but she also warns us not to kid ourselves that a company is out do anything other than promote its self-interest. There’s a caveat, though: relationships matter. C says that publicists, and even the corporate rank and file, often do want stories of their organizations told truthfully, and publicly. But only if journalists can be trusted to do a good job—and sometimes, that means abandoning expectations of a responsive PR infrastructure.
“Relationships are the number one thing that have made any difference in anything I have ever done as a publicist,” C tells me. “And I would say I don’t think journalists do the same thing. Because they assume that people are going to come to them because they’re the journalist with the power. If you build relationships with people, you’ll be able to get around this bullshit and get through.”
As for Sam Sanders’s take on whether or not Facebook owes me a response, he more or less shrugs off the question.
“There’s been this great wringing of hands on the demise of the daily White House Press Briefing. ‘Oh, you can’t bring cameras anymore,’ ‘Oh, they won’t answer your questions,’” says Sanders. “So the lesson here is: stop waiting for them to make it easy for you; stop waiting for the White House to deliver you your news…you’re going to have to hunt for it. And I think the same thing is true of the way we cover companies like Facebook and Twitter. We should stop expecting them to give us stuff. We should go into these stories and situations knowing that they’re probably not going to give us the best interview, the best statement, or even a statement at all—but we should still do our jobs.”
Granted, just because our jobs are difficult doesn’t mean we should get lazy about doing them. But then again, it’s hard not to see Silicon Valley’s hostility to transparency against a backdrop of a collapsing social contract. A lack of corporate accountability to the press, while certainly not new, does seem symptomatic of a society in which institutions we have long taken for granted—free elections, public education, a thriving middle class, even the post office—are under threat.
One often gets the sense that the tech industry would like to fill the institutional vacuum produced by an era of political turbulence. Elon Musk has a private space program, startup accelerator Y Combinator is piloting a universal basic income project, and Mark Zuckerberg is conducting a semi-presidential tour, to name a few.
But if tech is serious about playing a significant role in civic life, then perhaps transparency should be part of that.
Until that happens, I’ll just have to take Sam Sanders’s note about working harder to get tech sources to go on-record. And the next time I need a comment from Facebook, I’m starting with a call to my new publicist friend in New York. She told me she might know some folks there.