I was surprised this week when a SXSW panel I put together last summer, and that took place in March this year, became a key part of a much-shared profile of Kara Swisher.

However, there are a few quotes from Alexia Tsotsis in there that were taken out of context and jumped upon as supposed evidence of tech bloggers hating themselves and (finally!) an admission from the co-editor of TechCrunch that the publication was just as corrupt as people often accuse it of being.

That’s not how I remember it. It may seem odd (to those who assume that competing tech writers must obviously hate each other) that I would defend Alexia – the editor of a rival publication to The Next Web – but context is important here for understanding both what she said and the point of the panel itself.

I’d hate for the only written record of that panel to be one designed to suit the context of a profile of one of the panelists, and reblogged from there as gospel. Alexia has had her say but here’s my perspective.

Firstly, this panel was deliberately designed to be “self-flagellation” – the very argument it was based around was that maybe tech journalists don’t always focus on the right issues. It wasn’t the first time this issue has been raised and an astute piece from the BBC’s Dave Lee this week brought it up again. The discussion was frank and useful, and the last-minute addition of Jemima Kiss from The Guardian (thanks to Alexia) added some much-needed diversity beyond what I feared may have turned into just three tech blog editors moaning for an hour.

Now – to the details. As I remember it, Alexia did say the words the Swisher profile quotes her as having said (or very similar words, at least), but let’s look more closely at them and how I understood them as the panel’s moderator:

“That’s why you’re better than us”

I took that to be a flattering joke from Alexia to Kara. I can see how it could be taken as a terrible admission of a flaw but in what was a relaxed conversation in a small room somewhere near the top of the Austin Convention Center, it was a fun comeback – nothing more. 

“Tsotsis was especially abject, suggesting that even if she’d received the Edward Snowden documents, she probably “would have succumbed to the pressure of the Obama administration now””

This was in the context of tech blogs not necessarily being equipped to handle a massive story like the Snowden leaks. I also took it to mean that maybe TechCrunch’s parent AOL would have pushed back against such a story being published. I certainly didn’t think Alexia was saying TechCrunch would have bent over and succumbed to government pressure through sheer weakness.

Update: My colleague Josh Ong was taking his own notes at the event and just pulled them out. Here’s what he has Alexia down as saying: “What more duty can you do as a citizen to your fellow citizens than reveal this massive spying? I don’t know whether I would have succumbed to the pressure. But I probably would have. TechCrunch is under AOL. I work for one of the companies that is giving information to the NSA.”

“TechCrunch “is just a cheerleader,” she said, and “a lot of tech media is sort of in the pockets of the people we cover … We’re inviting them to our parties. We might be dating some of them. We are right in the middle, in the thick, of the tech industry.””

Again, I’m not sure if this is an exact quote but she said words to that effect. This wasn’t a celebration of the current situation, more a statement of fact and an admission of a problem that she faced in her role as co-editor. And note that she said “a lot of tech media” – this isn’t just a TechCrunch problem.

She stays up nights worrying about sources getting fired: “There’s a part of me that’s like: No, don’t leak this to us!”

To me, that described the conflict felt when you’re friends with the people who are leaking you material, not a suggestion that TechCrunch wouldn’t run a leak.

If you’re going to criticise someone, those criticisms should be based on fact. Even if the quotes in the Swisher profile are 100 percent accurate, the context in which they were said is crucial to understanding them.

My key takeaway from the panel that day in March was that Alexia, Kara and I are all aware of ways in which coverage of the tech industry can be improved – and luckily we’re all in a position to do something about it.

Update: I’ve been asked how this changes anything about the comments that were made. I see it as a difference between ‘this was a terrible admission of failure’ and ‘this was a tiny part of a frank discussion about awareness of problems with some tech blogs’. These quotes were tiny fragments of a much wider discussion and the NY mag piece didn’t frame them in a way that presented them as anything more than ‘Kara good, Alexia bad’. There was a lot more to the panel than that. That’s simply the point I set out to make here.

4 Comments

  • Not a single word of this contradicts the “context” of the reports you’re criticizing. You just transformed the context from “Isn’t this stuff awful?” to “This awful stuff is just fine by me!”

    I haven’t read the Pando thing, but how exactly was the Gawker piece not “based on fact?”

    • Hmm, no – I’ve changed the context from ‘this was a terrible admission of failure’ to ‘this was a frank discussion about awareness of problems with tech blogs’. I never said it was right. If TechCrunch does have problems with things like its owners interfering with its content then it’s up to them to handle that. I just linked to the Valleywag piece to show how people jumped on the original NY mag piece without being there to understand the full context in which these comments were made, that’s all.

      • OK, so it was an a “frank discussion” of why these sites are so bad, and not a “terrible admission” of why these sites are so bad. Nuance!

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