“Eventually First Look Media will just be Pierre’s Second Life avatar wandering around an open-space office plan.”
— An anonymous First Look Media employee, speaking to Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor at In These Times
Because of the grand jury decision in the Ferguson shooting case, I wasn’t able to do a “Newsroom Notes” this week. But if you happened to catch Sunday’s episode of the HBO show, you know that Sorkin introduced into the mix a predictably caricatured version of a Silicon Valley billionaire in the form of B.J. Novak. The character Novak plays, Lucas Pruitt, is a laughable mélange of Hollywood-Aspergerian tics and ridiculous tech-speak, basically the living embodiment of Sorkin’s contempt for that world. In his storyline, he’s cast as the potential savior of ACN, a privileged, Valley-insulated genius who has the money to buy the network but who threatens to turn it into a tool for “disruption” by creating 500 niche channels including one dedicated to people who stalk Danny Glover.
But that’s just TV. What seems to be going on behind the scenes at First Look Media right now, however, is a far more illustrative example of what happens when people who think the Valley is actually an ivory tower from which to look down on the rest of humanity try to corral a roomful of honest-to-god journalists. Maybe more so than anything that’s been written about First Look up until now, Chris Lehmann’s piece exposes not only the rumblings inside the organization but the systemic fault lines that are causing them.
We can report that Matt Taibbi and John Cook have left and the entire staff of Taibbi’s now-defunct project for First Look has been fired — and we can analyze the reasons why it all might have happened — but it doesn’t get at the core problem. Lehmann’s piece confirms through insider interviews exactly what any reasonable person probably expected: Pierre Omidyar’s way of thinking is completely antithetical to the goal of producing journalism for the simple reason that Omidyar and those like him don’t like being challenged and journalism does nothing but challenge.
This sums it up:
The more the Omidyar saga unspools, the less surprising it all looks. Decades into the information age, the culture of Silicon Valley and the traditions of investigative reporting still make for an awkward fit. The tech industry’s obsessions with digital gadgetry and vacuous innovation-speak are notoriously resistant to basic journalistic values such as skeptical inquiry. One need only witness the geyser of hosannahs that attends a new iPhone release (no matter how buggy it turns out to be), or the insular witlessness of your average TED talk to realize that the tech industry prefers its media coverage without critical thinking or independent judgment.
While we’re talking about this, one of the details revealed about life inside Omidyar’s emerald city is that the wizards in charge apparently can’t go more than a few hours without having a meeting of some sort. Late last week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote an entertaining little screed against the Cult of the Office Meeting. In his (correct) view, meetings are generally nothing but unproductive time-sucks that replace actual work with simply talking about work (and the work to come). Nowhere is this more true than in a newsroom. Journalists not only despise meetings, because they’re journalists and are paid to be cynical, skeptical, occasionally misanthropic pains-in-the-ass, they’ll let you know it.
When I worked in TV news, I used to have a prepared statement for anyone who tried to interfere with my show or drag me into any meeting longer than a quick pow-wow to go over the day’s stories: “Go away and leave me alone and I’ll make you proud.” Simple as that. Omidyar’s is by no means the only ostensible news outlet that feels that sitting around talking about largely meaningless ephemera is the way to get actual work done, but if Pierre Omidyar himself is an especially devout worshiper at the altar of the meeting, it’s easy to see why there are so many problems at First Look Media.
Whether the organization will actually last, who knows? But Lehmann’s piece doesn’t paint a pretty picture.