Today
Mon 29 November 2021

With his probing eye for conflicts of interest in the British press, Mic Wright turns his scrutiny to tech journalists and their coverage of Facebook

On the day that Mark Zuckerberg announced that the holding company that contains Facebook, WhatsApp, Oculus and Instagram has been renamed Meta, he conducted a very interesting media round.

Matthew Olson, of the vigorously-paywalled Silicon Valley house journal The Information, scored one of four interviews. The founder and editor-in-chief of The Information is former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin. A Harvard graduate, Lessin first encountered Zuckerberg when she edited a story about the company in the university newspaper, The Crimson, back in 2004 when the social media platform was still called The Facebook.

Lessin is married to Sam Lessin, a former Facebook vice-president turned venture capitalist and start-up founder. Their 2012 marriage was dubbed “the tech networking event of the year” by Business Insider and they featured in the publication’s list of “tech power couples” in 2013. 

In an article on Zuckerberg’s highly-selective media sweep – less a blitz and more a series of targeted drone strikes – The New York Times’ media columnist wrote, with that publication’s cracker-dry understatement, that Lessin “has a unique vantage on Mr Zuckerberg”. Ben Smith noted that “[Lessin] spent part of the pandemic visiting [Zuckerberg] at his compound on Hawaii’s island of Kauai” and that “their families are close”. 

Zuckerberg was a groomsman at the Lessins’ wedding. Jessica Lessin was present but out of shot at Lake Tahoe “when Mr Zuckerberg posted a video on Instagram… [celebrating] Fourth of July by riding a hydrofoil across the water while waving an American flag”, and Sam Lessin was seen in photos published by MailOnline in June accompanying Zuckerberg on a hunting trip in Kuai (“a mission to hunt either wild boar or wild goats”, according to the pernickety New York Times).

Lessin told Smith that she did not consider her relationship with Zuckerberg and his family to be a conflict of interest and claimed that she recuses herself when “there is something that could stand in the way of me doing my job objectively” but that her “job is very different from people I know and personal relationships”.

It is a frankly ludicrous claim but one that I am not surprised Ben Smith did not rigorously challenge. Despite being The New York Times’ media columnist, he still holds stock in BuzzFeed and while he is prevented from writing about his former company in any significant way, he has published potentially market-moving stories on its competitors. 


Deal with the Devil

Mark Zuckerberg’s other one-on-ones went to The Verge, the subscription newsletter Stratechery, and media start-up Puck (which claims to bring readers “the inside conversation at the nexus of Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley and Hollywood”). 

The Verge – founded in 2011 (two years before The Information) – is the oldest of the publications given time with Zuckerberg and it is still not yet into its teens. While it was part of the coalition of publications that got access to the so-called ‘Facebook Papers’ leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, it assigned Alex Heath – a former reporter at The Information – to produce the article. 

Heath asked Zuckerberg questions like “can you explain why you’re doing this rebrand?” and “is there a restructuring component of this functionally with how the organisations report to people as well? Or is it more just the brand?” In was hardly a Paxmanesque interrogation. 

The conversation between Zuckerberg and Stratechery’s Ben Thompson – a former Apple, WordPress, and Microsoft employee – was also unsurprisingly genial. It was long on long questions met with long answers but short on anything that resembled scrutiny. Still, John Gruber, author/owner of the long-running tech blog Daring Fireball (who just happens to host a podcast with Thompson) deemed it to be “an excellent interview”. 

The last of the four interviews – Zuckerberg talking to former NBC News, CNN, and Politico staffer turned Puck senior reporter Dylan Byers — began with a seemingly snide reference to the motivations behind reporting on the Facebook Papers (“it was weeks after the leaked documents by a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, had manifested themselves into the Wall Street Journal’s epic, Pulitzer-hopeful series, The Facebook Files”).

While all four Zuckerberg interviews raised serious questions around Facebook’s business model and past behaviour, to a greater or lesser extent, each of them came with the faint sulphuric whiff of a deal with the devil. This is access journalism of a very modern kind.

Jessica Lessin told Ben Smith: “Bigger publications would like to make a stink that he’s going to the indies and not the big guys, which is frankly absurd. What’s really happening is a recognition that there are many different audiences.” But that is disingenuous: Facebook has traded access for gentle treatment. Lessin said that The Information has published critical articles about Facebook and it has, but it is a lot less combative about Zuckerberg personally. And, while she claims to recuse herself from those decisions, her employees are still well aware that he is a family friend. 

Back in 2016, The New York Times published an op-ed by Lessin which argued that Facebook should not be in the business of fact-checking news. In the last paragraph, she mentioned that Sam Lessin “did work there for a brief period” – utterly neglecting to mention that he was not just any employee but one who had known Zuckerberg since college, sold a start-up to Facebook, and was head of product at the social network. 

The New York Times’ then public editor, Liz Spayd, wrote a piece strongly criticising the omissions. “I wouldn’t expect Times editors to necessarily put all that information in a piece explaining Jessica Lessin’s connection to a company she’s writing about, but simply saying her husband ‘worked at Facebook for a brief period’ doesn’t cut it,” she observed.

Five years on, Facebook cherry-picking which outlets Mark Zuckerberg will entertain and the access journalism accommodations that come with that don’t cut it either.

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