Iconic tech journalist Kara Swisher came to give a talk at Columbia Journalism School about technology, the media, politics, and everything in between.
Formidable, snappy, and always brutally truthful, Kara Swisher is a force to be reckoned with. On December 3rd, “the most feared and respected technology journalist in America” sat down with Columbia Journalism students and community members to discuss technology, journalism, and the changing nature of our media landscape. You may know Swisher from her interviews with big names like Mark Zuckerberg or Andrew Yang, or more generally from her company Recode, a tech-oriented branch of Vox Media. She holds a B.S. from Georgetown University and an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School.
The evening started with a short lecture from Swisher. Her amicable and relatable tone, sometimes calling out her mother in the front row, sometimes poking fun at the many tech giants she has interacted with, immediately gave the room a comfortable atmosphere. She took the audience through her career path in journalism, from writing for the Georgetown Hoya to working for media giants such as The Wall Street Journal. Eventually, she described settling at Vox, starting a podcast and a branch company, in addition to writing an opinion column at The New York Times. Her interest in technology budded at Columbia in the 80s, when computers were first starting to emerge as tools for regular people. Describing the beginnings of the internet, Swisher told a story of downloading a book from the World Wide Web for the first time, and the realization that hit her when it actually worked – media would never be the same again. In her own words, “the shift from atoms to 1’s and 0’s was a critical moment for journalism.” From that point forward, she described making a point to keep up with technology, from briefcase cellphones to the newest iPhone. From paying attention to technology, she was one of the first to call out big technology companies for their moral breaches.
Swisher has been in tech reporting from the start and has seen the evolution over the course of time, so she continued her lecture with a discussion on Big Tech today. She emphasized that the media landscape is dominated by a small, largely homogenous group of billionaires who couldn’t care less if they’re spreading cat videos or breaking news. She urged the audience to consider – are we trading our precious data for petty convenience, selling one of the most valuable commodities of today for a better digital map or a slightly faster autofill? Although the US government is beginning to pay attention and regulate, she argued that in today’s polarized political climate where politicians “can’t agree on lunch”, Big Tech breakups could come too late. She claimed that “A future where we will be totally and completely monitored is here already”, as smartphones constantly ping more updates to obscure servers, our daily motions and actions are easy to track and monitor. The people in control of this technology are unelected, not to mention largely unregulated, and are ignorant of the real and theoretical dangers their creations can pose.
With that, the lecture ended, and Swisher opened the floor up for questions. The first question, unsurprisingly, was “How did you do it” – how did Swisher become the queen of tech journalism, so revered and respected by billionaires across the world. Her biggest advice to the budding journalists in the room was to know the people you write about. She urged young journalists to spend time reading, calling, emailing, texting, interviewing, and generally immersing themselves into the world of the story they are trying to cover. Knowing the subject helps, both with the story you write and for potential future stories, and long-form reporting is a skill often lost in the modern rapid-fire flow of stories. “I work twice as hard as most people half my age” she joked, but brought up multiple examples of moments where her past connections were key in her stories – most recently, the change in Google’s management. She added to make sure you never get pulled into anything you don’t have a background in – companies have entire teams dedicated to PR, and you need to know your subject through and through to avoid falling for a marketing strategy in your stories.
Another audience member asked a follow-up question – with her no-nonsense persona and history of being tough on Big Tech, how did she manage to keep getting interviews? Laughing, Swisher’s first response was that it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but on a more serious note, she thinks it’s because she’s fair. She is clear about her intentions, her opinions, and, as one interviewee once put it “The rest of Washington will stab you in the back but you’ll stab me in the front, and I respect that.” In her own words, “I’m fair with people, I never play games with them, I’m not particularly snarky and I tell them when it’s coming”. She added that she believes that smart people like smart discussions, even if that means being challenged.
So what makes a good interviewer? Moderator Yasmin Alia Alameddine asked Swisher “If I were interviewing you, what advice would you give me?” Swisher had a number of tips, many related to the previous question – largely, Swisher attributes her own success to unabashed confidence. ‘I’m the best” she says “I think humility is overrated if you’re actually good.” Having confidence in what you’re doing, asking direct questions without meandering around your point, and not letting your interviewee off the hook. Her biggest advice was to ask the question that everyone is thinking, but is too afraid to ask. It cuts to the chase and gives a better quality interview.
Throughout the evening, she told a few colorful stories about the more interesting stories she’s written. One was about interviewing Barack Obama, who was notoriously cool and collected during press conferences. Right before the cameras rolled, she egged him on, and by making him annoyed and disgruntled, she was able to get more earnest responses. In another case, while interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, after hearing him begin to justify the presence of Holocaust deniers on Facebook, instead of shutting him down and becoming angry, she gave him space to say his complete thought. In that interview, Zuckerberg dug his own controversial grave, entering a PR scandal that still follows him today – if Swisher had intervened and voiced her own opinion, Zuckerberg’s statement would have been less controversial and more clouded by Swisher’s opinions.
The night continued with more questions, the next being “How do you feel about [new media] platforms being the arbiters of free speech?”, referring to the increasing use of social media as a news outlet. Swisher came out with a strong statement: paid speech is not free speech. If a creator is paying a social media outlet to air their media, but that media promotes falsehoods or hate, it transgresses the bounds of free speech. Trying to decide right from wrong, and trying to regulate to any legitimate degree is too expensive, and would undermine the business model of these companies – they would no longer be able to provide their services for free, and thus would lose their customer base. The only self-regulation that companies currently do – human content moderation – has come under fire for being extremely unethical.
The next question asked about Swisher’s opinions on the 2020 presidential race. She believes that very few of the candidates actually understand tech – out of the Democrats, only Elizabeth Warren has expressed explicit interest in dismantling the Big Tech conglomerates. She added that Andrew Yang, although not a frontrunner, is one of the most attuned to the influence of tech. Out of the Republicans, clearly President Trump has an excellent grasp on using technology and social media as a tool to disperse information (and misinformation). Swisher commented on how tech has influenced the current presidency – from commands being issued over Twitter, to whether President Trump’s Tweets should be treated as press releases.
As for what journalists could do better in terms of political coverage, Swisher spoke against Washington DC reporting, claiming insider culture has ruined good reporting there. In addition, she looked down on reporters going out into rural America to get their “alternative opinion”. Swisher said she believes that journalists should interview real people, as opposed to the political games going on in Washington.
The conversation turned away from politics to the future of tech and journalism. Resoundingly, Swisher urged journalists to embrace new technology, and use it all. Podcasts, print, video, social media – it all needs to be active to dissipate media well. Despite what people may say, people prefer substance, and creating content that makes good, substantial use of its medium is better than creating “snackable” content. As for the next frontiers of journalism, Swisher said that VR and AR have potential to be a storytelling medium like no other. She added that the tools we have today are beautiful and amazing, and using them for a benevolent purpose helps humanity. Although she may often talk about the doomsday scenario of Big Tech’s future, technology is still fascinating and amazing, and journalists should not lose sight of that.
Swisher finished the evening with a short comment on the constant surveillance that social networks allow, citing examples such as China, which spends up to 20% of its yearly budget on self-surveillance. The Hong Kong protests are an interesting evolving example of what happens when people are over-policed online. But government intervention can also be a slippery slope – as recent examples in Singapore have shown, policing content can also turn into free speech violations. Emerging technology such as neural networks – which would implant Big Tech into your brain – or even self-driving cars will have huge repercussions for how our society functions. “This technology is meant to track you and gobble you up,” she said, urging the audience to be mindful of how much of our own data we feed into tech.
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