The media landscape shifted under Silicon Valley's feet, so now they're trying to silence criticism they don't like
- Reporter Taylor Lorenz has been targeted by billionaire tech investor Marc Andreessen.
- Lorenz’s reporting on Andreessen and companies he’s invested, in like Clubhouse and Substack, has drawn heat from the billionaire and his allies.
- Today’s tech elites are trying to send a message to media, all while building their own in house newsrooms.
- Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In February, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz made an error that led to over a month of harassment and attacks. The Styles section reporter, whose work focuses on tech and online influencer culture, was listening in on a conversation hosted by popular audio-based social media app Clubhouse — where listeners can hear the participants but can at times not identify the speaker — when she mistakenly thought she heard billionaire tech investor Marc Andreessen use an ableist slur.
The word was actually said by Ben Horowitz, the other cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreeseen Horowitz. But Lorenz posted an accusation against Andreessen before that was clear, and by the time she deleted the tweet and clarified, the damage was done.
An unrelenting harassment campaign aimed at Lorenz from Andreessen and his allies followed. At one point Andreessen joined a Clubhouse room with Holocaust denier Chuck C. Johnson ironically entitled “Taylor Lorenz Fans Only.” With 3.7 million Clubhouse followers, Andreessen’s participation was a magnet for his fans, already primed to dislike Lorenz.
A war on journalism
Andreessen’s investment into Clubhouse led to the app’s $1 billion valuation in January. In addition to investing in Clubhouse, a16z is a primary backer of newsletter service Substack, a new player in media with an eye toward overturning traditional newsrooms and giving journalists the ability to talk directly to their audience.
For Andreessen, a man with a long history of online invention, investment, and influence who jealously guards his image and tightly controls how he’s perceived, reporters like Lorenz represent a threat to his carefully crafted image. So, the billionaire tech investor is using his power to dismiss her reporting and shape public opinion.
By using these tropes and attempting to undermine Lorenz and others, Andreessen is following an established playbook from rich men who want constant public adulation and power but refuse to tolerate criticism or deviation from their preferred narrative. Billionaires using their clout and power to agitate for better coverage in the press is a longstanding practice of the wealthy and powerful. The ultrarich have long meddled with the media and attempted to shape newsrooms to the benefit of the elite.
In the modern era there have been figures who push their agenda through a direct media empire, like Rupert Murdoch — owner of News Corp — has made billions pushing the English-speaking world to the right through a number of outlets. Or magnates from other industries getting into media to project their worldview and protect their business interests, like the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who bought the Las Vegas Review Journal in 2015.
Today this age-old tactic has come to Silicon Valley. After over a decade of largely friendly and positive coverage from the tech press, a shift in how the industry is reported on has generated a backlash from company boardrooms and venture capital firms. In one of the most notorious cases, financier Peter Thiel’s successful vendetta against the website Gawker, the site was shuttered. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, regularly attacks journalists that don’t toe the line. Amazon sends demands to reporters that they include PR lines in investigative articles on warehouse conditions.
Beyond just attacking, Silicon Valley’s wealthy have also gotten directly involved with media interests around the country. For example, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. The paper’s reporting on Amazon has seemed to pull punches in the past and at times has promoted an ideological agenda that supports the financial interests of its billionaire founder.
Now a16z seems to be taking an approach somewhere between Thiel’s outright attacks and Bezos’ absorption of legacy media. In addition to investments in alternative platforms like Substack and Clubhouse, the first is creating their own alternative media landscape, launching an in-house media venture to compete with tech-focused outlets — but with its content presumably under the auspices and control of the founders. The new outlet will have a clear editorial voice, according to a January 25 press release from a16z partner Margit Wennmachers, that sees the general mission of Silicon Valley as a societal good.
“Our lens is rational optimism about technology and the future,” Wennmachers wrote. “We believe that it’s better to be alive after the industrial revolution than in an agrarian society.”
Big Tech’s real mission
There’s a rather simple explanation for the actions of Andreessen, Thiel, et al. They’re not so much interested in obtaining positive coverage — though that’s certainly a consideration — they more want to reshape the institution of the media to their benefit.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with wanting to shake up the staid institution of the American press, which doesn’t have a lot to offer readers interested in affliction of the powerful. These new media platforms like Clubhouse and Substack offer new, innovative, and needed ways for writers to reach their audiences. That’s all to the good, but is hardly the extent of the ambitions of the ultra-rich tech lords.
The diverse ecosystem of independent media that has sprung up over the past decade is profitable — for company heads, investors, and the content creators at the top. And what the tech billionaires want is a subservient press that doesn’t question Silicon Valley and the opinions and beliefs of the wealthy investors who power the tech sector. It’s not a coincidence that the targets of tand their hanger ons are people whose reporting has exposed issues of concern for the public around tech that Silicon Valley would prefer to keep quiet.
The attacks on Lorenz and others are designed to make reporters more hesitant to report on Silicon Valley’s most powerful, to add another deterring factor to the consideration of whether to chase a story. It’s not about “fairness,” it’s about power — and who gets to wield it.
Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, The Intercept, Vice News, and many other outlets. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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