Silicon Valley Elite Discuss Journalists Having Too Much Power in Private App

In leaked audio from an invite-only app, venture capitalists pondered everything they think is wrong with journalism.
03 July 2020, 8:39am
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Image: Emojipedia

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

During a conversation held Wednesday night on the invite-only Clubhouse app—an audio social network popular with venture capitalists and celebrities—entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, several Andreessen Horowitz venture capitalists, and, for some reason, television personality Roland Martin spent at least an hour talking about how journalists have too much power to "cancel" people and wondering what they, the titans of Silicon Valley, could do about it.

The call shows how Silicon Valley millionaires, who have been coddled by the press and lauded as innovators and disruptors, fundamentally misunderstand the role of journalism the moment it turns a critical eye to their industry. It also suggests they’re eager to find new ways to hit back at what they see as unfavorable and unfair press coverage.

Motherboard obtained a recording of the conversation, which took place on Clubhouse, an app which as of late May had just 1,500 users. The app was valued at $100 million after a reported $12 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, and requires an invite to join. In May, New York Times internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz wrote that the app is "where venture capitalists have gathered to mingle with one another while they are quarantined in their homes."

"Sometimes there is a tarot card reader critiquing a member’s Instagram account; sometimes it is a dating advice show; sometimes bored people sound off about anything that pops into their mind," she wrote.

On Wednesday night, the topic of conversation was Lorenz herself, who had been listening earlier in the conversation but left partway through. After she left, the participants began discussing whether Lorenz was playing "the woman card" when speaking out about her harassment following a Twitter altercation with Srinivasan.

"You can't fucking hit somebody, attack them and just say, 'Hey, I have ovaries and therefore, you can't fight back,'" Felicia Horowitz, founder of the Horowitz Family Foundation and wife of Andreessen Horowitz cofounder Ben Horowitz, said.

In recent days Lorenz, who criticized luggage startup Away co-CEO Steph Korey on Twitter Wednesday, has been harassed and impersonated on Twitter.

On the call, Srinivasan suggested that Lorenz—who earlier in the day had accused him on Twitter of "constantly trying to destroy my career on the internet and in private"—was overreacting and that she was perhaps scared of him, and that this was why she left the conversation that night on Clubhouse.

"Is Taylor afraid of a brown man on the street? Then she shouldn't be afraid of a brown man in Clubhouse," Srinivasan said. "I have literally done nothing other than one previous tweet. Number one, right? So the whole, you know, talking about tweeting as you know, harassment—completely illegitimate, completely wrong, completely fabricated and just false."

The audio chat had spiraled wildly out of control from a broader conversation earlier in the call about the state of journalism and what VCs should do to receive better coverage. Srinivasan, formerly a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, claimed that "the entire tech press was complicit in covering up the threat of COVID-19," and claimed that relying on the press is "outsourcing your information supply chain to folks who are disaligned with you," comparable to the United States having outsourced its medical supply chain. He proposed that the approaches to truth and accountability offered by GitHub, venture capital funding, and cryptocurrency all offer better models for journalism than "the East Coast model of 'Respect my authori-tay.'"

When asked for comment about the Clubhouse chat, Srinivasan screenshotted our request and tweeted about it.

"When it comes to our industry, there’s a really, really toxic dynamic that exists right now," Nait Jones, an Andreessen Horowitz VC, said on the call while speaking about recent reports about abuse in the tech industry. "Because those stories were so popular and drove so much traffic, they also created a market for more of those stories. They created a pressure on many reporters to find the next one of those stories inside of a fast growing tech company because those stories play very well on Twitter, especially around protecting vulnerable people."

(In 2020, the idea that fishing for “clicks” to drive ad revenue is a successful or even common business model is a fallacy. Publications that rely exclusively on advertising are failing at an astonishing rate; financially, many journalistic outlets are increasingly moving away from an ad-based revenue model driven by traffic, and instead focus on live events, subscriptions, optioning their articles to movie studios, and other models that rely on having a dedicated readership that trusts the publication).

"How can there be an accountability function that's implementable across all media that allows for that to happen, that pushback to happen without it being turned around and can become some toxic thing where all types of power dynamics are being used, and people have their weapons out," Jones said.

"Her employer should be saying, you cross the line with your editorial comments," Martin said, adding that "If I'm [Srinivasan], the argument that I would make to her bosses is you should be instructing your reporters not to be making editorial judgments about someone. Stick to reporting."

The exclusive users of Clubhouse on the call seemed to conceive of themselves as humble citizens preyed upon by corrupted elites cravenly lusting after money and power; this reached a bizarre apogee when Srinivasan boasted of standing up for the CEO of a scandal-plagued luggage brand, depicting her as all but powerless because of her relatively low Twitter follower count. The conversation essentially resembled a Gamergate chat, with people obsessing over minute drama and, at times, suggesting that Lorenz had crossed a line on Twitter and must be punished.

“Taylor is an excellent reporter doing incredibly relevant reporting for this moment. She, and all reporters, should be able to do their jobs without facing harassment,” Choire Sicha, editor of the NYTimes Styles desk, told Motherboard in an email.

Clubhouse founders Rothan Seth and Paul Davison didn't respond to a request for comment. Jones did not respond to a request for comment. Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment.

*

The conversation was set off by a series of exhausting, insidery events from the last two weeks. Some in the Silicon Valley set turned their sights on the Times after Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who ran the philosophy blog SlateStarCodex, deleted the entire blog because he said the Times was going to "dox" him by publishing his real name in an upcoming story. (It is worth noting that Alexander has republished SlateStarCodex blogs in books using his full name.) This event resurfaced an ongoing and tedious discussion among venture capitalist types about journalism ethics, business models, and publishing incentives.

Wednesday, Korey, the co-CEO of Away, a direct to consumer luggage brand that was the subject of an expose in The Verge last year, published a series of Instagram Story posts in which she suggested that she was unfairly targeted by The Verge in part because she is a woman. She also said that journalists should be easier to sue, and suggested that the main thing driving journalism is "clicks." The Verge story focused on a culture of abuse at Away under Korey's leadership; workers there said they were prevented from taking vacation, were banned from emailing each other, and worked extremely long hours.

“The incentive isn’t to report what’s happening,” Korey wrote. “It’s to write things that will be shared by people on social media. And several of these digital-only outlets have nearly nonexistent editorial standards (especially the click baity-y ones, you know who they are). Side note: I could write a whole separate essay about how defamation lawsuits should be easier to pursue now that misrepresentation *is* the business model of some of these outlets.” (In the aftermath of The Verge's story, Korey announced she’d hired the well-known defamation firm Clare Locke LLP, which has made a business out of getting unflattering stories stalled or killed.)

While Korey’s Instagram comments were a supposed critique of the journalism industry, they looked at times a lot more like a claim that The Verge story was unfair or inaccurate in ways she didn’t actually address.

After Korey posted her stories on Instagram, a number of journalists commented on them, including Lorenz, who tweeted "Steph Korey, the disgraced former CEO of Away luggage company, is ranting on IG stories about the media. Her posts are incoherent and it’s disappointing to see a woman who ran a luggage brand perpetuate falsehoods like this abt an industry she clearly has 0 understanding of."

Lorenz's tweet was immediately tweeted about by several Silicon Valley venture capitalists, most notably Srinivasan, who eventually made a seven-tweet thread in which he suggested Lorenz, and journalists like her, are "sociopaths."

That same day, a self-described Taylor Lorenz "parody" Twitter account started retweeting Srinivasan and other tech investors and executives critical of her work. The account's bio also links to a website, also self-described as parody, which is dedicated to harassing Lorenz. (Twitter told Motherboard it deleted another account for impersonating Lorenz.)

Yesterday Lorenz called out Srinivasan on Twitter by tagging him and asked his friends, like Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Ben Horowitz, to help end the conflict, which eventually continued on Clubhouse.

*

In Korey's analysis, exposing the conditions of workers is clickbait designed to attract eyeballs; she also argued that female founders were more likely to be attacked, especially by young female reporters. The story about Korey’s alleged misconduct was written by a young reporter named Zoe Schiffer. Korey added a few minutes later that she’d gotten word her comments were filtering through to Twitter, and wrote, in part, “I believe the overwhelming majority of young female reporters are truly excellent. It has been the case that the female-founder takedowns tend to be written by young women, but I do not think they represent the whole demographic whatsoever.”

Korey’s avid defenders in the Clubhouse conversation agreed with that analysis.

“The coverage seems to be so one-sided around the people running the companies,” one person on the call whom Motherboard could not immediately identify complained. “They're all abusers, they're all trying to get rich. It's just down, down, down. It's almost depressing to watch, as someone who's an advocate for building things. It's hard to watch the coverage, it's almost anti-building things ...The whole entire DNA of Silicon Valley has been optimism from day one."

Articles like the Verge's investigation into Away do not appear out of thin air. People who work at tech companies—often burdened with non-disclosure agreements—take risks to discuss labor conditions at their company. At the time the Verge article was published, Korey apologized. Wednesday, she was suggesting she'd been unfairly targeted, and that "a few who are using the media platform they have access to further their careers by knowingly misrepresenting female founders for clicks & their own profile/fame."

"I spoke up for her because she had, you know, 8,000 followers, and she was being attacked by a New York Times reporter as a disgraced former CEO and she's actually still, you know, current co-CEO," Srinivasan said. "I believe in standing up for those people who don't have a voice, who cannot stand up for themselves."

Lost in the shuffle are the employees who say this apparently powerless CEO still presides over a broken company. Thursday afternoon, a coalition of Away employees emailed Away's leadership to say that "Steph's Comments Are Hurting Us."

We “have been hurt and left deflated by Steph Korey’s recent action on Instagram and Twitter," they wrote in the email, which was obtained by Motherboard and was acknowledged by Away's cofounder Jen Rubio. "We are writing to you as the employees of Away and asking that something is done to address the story that is building around Steph's Instagram and Twitter comments over the last several days.

Steph has been largely absent during this health pandemic, the company's layoffs and the civil unrest surrounding Black Lives Matter. This made sense. She was on mat leave and taking time to focus on her personal life over her professional one. This is why her social media activity over the last few days has been so surprising and frankly hurtful as employees of this company."

Korey and Away's cofounders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update, 5:43 P.M. EST

In response to a request for comment from Motherboard, Away's vice president of communications and corporate affairs shared two screenshots. The first was an email from Jen Rubio, Away's co-founder, president, and Chief Brand Officer, addressed to the employees who had complained about Korey's comments. (The email comes from Rubio's email account; it's also cosigned by Stuart Haselden, the company's co-CEO).

Rubio wrote that Korey's comments "do not reflect or affect our current company priorities and the deep work we're doing about diversity, equity and inclusion." The email also stated that Stuart Haselden will take on the role of sole CEO at Away in 2020, and that Korey has updated her social media profiles to state that her views are her own.

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In her own Slack response, Korey wrote: "I understand that I have a responsibility as co-founder and co-CEO to commit to using my personal platforms to support our priorities, not distract by them." She apologized to "anyone I hurt by shifting the focus away from these important cultural moments this past week," referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the company's stated commitment to "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion," as Korey put it. Both statements say Away's priority is "becoming an anti-racist company."

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Additional reporting by Tim Marchman and Samantha Cole.

This piece has been updated with comment from Away and to attribute a quote to a speaker on the Clubhouse call.