Saturday, July 11, 2015

Breakdown of a NYT Story

There was an interesting story on Hacker News about how the NYT regularly edits live news stories over time without notifying readers of changes.

I like the idea of online articles allowing users to see diffs showing how stories evolve over time. The technology is not very complicated and it would be a huge win for transparency.

The purpose of this post however is to dissect the updated NYT article. I am doing this as an exercise since some people did not see how the newer article was biased. I have not read the NYT in a long time so I thought this might be a fun chance to see what I am missing.

The article is a supposed straight news story about Ellen Pao resigning as CEO of Reddit. Here is a link to the piece. Below I will break it down paragraph by paragraph.


The title: “It's Silicon Valley 2, Ellen Pao 0: Fighter of Sexism is Out at Reddit.”

Already you have lost me. This cannot be thought of as news with this title. Framing Ellen Pao's failed lawsuit and resignation as two wins for Silicon Valley in a battle against a “Fighter of Sexism,” immediately injects the story with a progressive slant. That most of the Times' readers agree with that slant is immaterial.

Ellen Pao became a hero to many when she took on the entrenched male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. But sentiment is a fickle thing. Late Friday she fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster as chief executive of the popular social media site Reddit.

The essence of this first paragraph is as follows: Hero...took on...entrenched male-dominated...but...fell victim.

From the first sentence the article is biased. Beginning a story about a controversial figure by pointing out that she is “a hero to many,” is biased, especially when that is done without pointing out the other side - the views of her critics. That her actions constituted taking on an “entrenched male-dominated culture,” is also debatable, as many people (including women) disagreed both with her lawsuit and behavior as CEO. What's more it is debatable that the “male-dominated” culture of Silicon Valley needs to be “taken on” in the first place! To progressives and feminists it may be self-evidently so, but it is not to a great many people, and should not be presented this way in the lead of a so-called news piece.

Saying that Pao “fell victim” to something explicitly paints her as a victim. When CEO's muck things up and get fired or are forced to quit, we do not generally think of them as victims. It can happen. You could argue that the Mozilla CEO stepping down because people did not like his opinion on gay marriage was unfair. Calling him a victim would still be loaded as it is here with Ellen Pao.

Ms. Pao’s abrupt downfall in the face of a torrent of sexist and racist comments, many of them on Reddit itself, is quite likely to renew charges that bullying, harassment and cruel behavior are out of control on the web — and that Silicon Valley’s well-publicized problem with gender and ethnic diversity in its work force persists.

The essence of this: Downfall...sexist...racist...bullying...harassment...cruel behavior...Silicon Valley...problem with gender and ethnic diversity.

Ellen Pao's resignation is here framed as her being shouted down by a “torrent” of misogynistic and racist comments. Lots of loaded terms here, including “torrent” and “bullying.” Ms. Pao is presented as an innocent victim. The phrase, “quite likely to renew charges that,” is a not very subtle way to add pure opinion, which would be everything that follows that phrase. The goal is to make the reader believe it is self-evident – beyond the realm of debate – that Silicon Valley is racist and misogynistic. In pushing that belief, the NYT strongly implies that Ms. Pao's loss of her role as CEO was unjust, another opinion.

The debates over diversity in technology and invective on the Internet have been simmering for a long time, but they’ve boiled over in the last year. One reason is Ms. Pao’s lawsuit against her former employer, the venerable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

This transition emphasizes the priority of this piece; it is not a news story about Pao's resignation, but rather an opportunity for the NYT to push a particular agenda in a story disguised as news.

Her gender discrimination case, years in the making, failed to sway a jury, but did reveal a community that casually tolerated an atmosphere where machismo was prized and women often seemed to be relegated to secondary roles.

There are a few bits of weasliness here. The sentence is structured to downplay the fact that Ellen Pao's claims were deemed meritless by a jury. There are two opinions in what comes after the comma, the first being the machismo atmosphere that was supposedly revealed. The qualifier “often seemed to be” softens the burden, yet it remains debatable whether what was revealed about Pao's former employer proves that women were “relegated to secondary roles.” The second opinion is the unstated premise that a community valuing “machismo” is inherently bad.

The dispute at Reddit, which arose from the dismissal of a well-liked employee earlier this month, drew much of its intensity from Ms. Pao’s lawsuit — and her gender.

The dispute at Reddit had a number of causes, not just the dismissal of the employee. That the intensity was due to Pao's gender is presented here as fact. Lets see how / if they evidence this. (spoiler alert: they don't)

The attacks were worse on Ellen because she is a woman,” said Sam Altman, a member of the Reddit board. “And that’s just a shame against humanity.”

This is someone's opinion presented as fact. The style is intentional – pulling it out in its own paragraph.

More than 213,000 people signed a petition demanding Ms. Pao’s resignation. After her departure was announced, Reddit users celebrated in an over-the-top fashion. “Rejoice internet brethren,” wrote one. “The great evil has been slain.”

The first sentence evidences Ms. Pao's unpopularity. That she was unpopular because of her gender is not evidenced. The second sentence and following quote appear to just be color, but they actually serve to paint Pao's opponents as illegitimate, “over-the-top” even.

Ms. Pao wrote in a Reddit post on Friday that in her eight months as chief executive, “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.” She added that “the good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.”

This is more color. Arguably it does not add much to the story, but again the point is to paint Pao as sympathetic – a victim of evil bigots, not an incompetent company leader.

It was definitely a hard week,” Ms. Pao said in an interview, characterizing her exit as a mutual agreement with the board after having differing views about the company’s future. She began working at Reddit two years ago. Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, drawing more than 160 million regular monthly visitors.

Nine paragraphs in and now finally we have something approaching the facts of the story. Pao herself describes her exit as being about her having “differing views about the company's future.” This contradicts the strong implication in the earlier paragraphs that Pao was ousted by the racist misogynist hoard of Silicon Valley. Remember paragraph 1? “She fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster.” Well, did she or didn't she?

Mitch Kapor, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that Reddit users were predominantly male and 18 to 29 years old.

This is setup. It is not relevant to any of the facts established in this piece. Aside from a lot of innuendo and implication, there is no concrete evidence that the user base's majority sex in some way affected Pao.

In my view, her job was made more difficult because as a woman, she was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem,” said Mr. Kapor, now a partner at Kapor Capital.

More opinion presented as fact. How did this precipitate her resignation given Pao's own characterization of why she left? It is true that some members of Reddit posted vial, racist, and sexist things against Ms. Pao. What percentage of Reddit did this? What percentage support such rhetoric? Specifically how did they make her job “more difficult?” Finally, why is a minority of hateful bigots deemed representative of all of Reddit? A percentage of black protesters that marched for Eric Garner in NYC held up vial, racist signs, and committed crimes against police and civilians. Are they representative of the entire body of protesters, or for that matter, all black people?

Mr. Kapor's statement is an unsupported generalization that no serious journalist would use. It appears here to push the New York Times' chosen narrative.

Ms. Pao’s departure from Reddit was prompted after the online message board’s tight-knit community broke into upheaval when news broke that Victoria Taylor, a prominent and well-liked Reddit employee, had been suddenly dismissed from the company this month with no public explanation. In protest, Reddit users shut down hundreds of sections of the message board.

This is mostly factual. The problem with this is that it is twelve paragraphs deep. People who have not read this far will never learn that one of the main causes of the backlash against Pao was how a well-liked employee was fired. The community protest and shut downs were in direct response to this action. The structure of this story makes it seem like the root source of Pao's opposition was misogynist internet haters.

Ms. Pao apologized to the site’s members for the episode earlier this week. Reddit’s management made errors, “not just on July 2, but also over the past several years,” she said in a post on one of the site’s forums on Monday. “The mods” — moderators — “and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of Reddit.”

Same issue as the previous paragraph.

The ouster was another setback for Ms. Pao, who rejected a seven-figure settlement offer from Kleiner last fall to end her claims that she had been discriminated against at the venture firm because she was a woman.

Nothing really wrong here, though you could nitpick with the term “setback,” as it is another example of a deliberately sympathetic tone. Reasonable people could argue that Pao is not deserving of sympathy. Even if the vast majority of people think so it is wrong for a news story to show it.

In the wake of the trial, Kleiner said Ms. Pao owed the firm nearly $1 million in court fees but offered to waive the bill if there was no appeal. Ms. Pao countered that the sum was excessive. Judge Harold Kahn agreed and reduced Kleiner’s costs to $276,000. He noted in his ruling that “Ms. Pao has significant economic resources.”

No big issue here.

In interviews, Ms. Pao has declined to detail what her next move is, but an appeal in the Kleiner case is quietly moving forward. The court reporter has been ordered to prepare transcripts, which is the next stage of the process. Ms. Pao does not need to give her basis for appeal for many months.

No issue here.

If she eventually succeeds in convincing a three-judge panel that the trial was unfair, Kleiner (and Silicon Valley, symbolically) would be on trial again. Ms. Pao’s lawyers did not return calls for comment on Friday. A lawyer for Kleiner declined to comment.

The parenthetical here is opinion. Silicon Valley is not symbolically on trial to many people, as Pao's former firm is not necessarily representative of the entire industry.

At Reddit, Ms. Pao will be replaced by Steve Huffman, the chief technology officer at Hipmunk, a travel search site. Adam Goldstein, chief executive of Hipmunk, said that Mr. Huffman would continue to oversee product and engineering at the site on a part-time basis. Mr. Huffman will also remain on Hipmunk’s board.

A series of factual statements. Refreshing.

Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit in a two-bedroom apartment in a Boston suburb a decade ago. Users go to the site to discuss a wide range of topics, including current events and viral memes and gifs. The company, based in San Francisco, has 70 to 80 employees and relies largely upon its thousands of dedicated power users to govern the site.

Useful detail and context. No issues.

Reddit is a private company, a majority of which is owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast. Last October, Reddit raised $50 million in venture capital from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Mr. Altman and the rapper Snoop Dogg.

Same as above.

Ms. Pao said she would remain as an adviser to Reddit’s board for the remainder of the year. As for her immediate future, she said, “I plan to get a lot of sleep.”

Cute ending. Subtly sympathetic to Pao again in that it paints her as being exhausted, which plays on the reader's sympathies. I doubt Donald Sterling was described similarly when he was banned for life from the NBA and lost ownership of his team for saying some un-PC things in private while being recorded without his knowledge.

Overall Analysis:

In the Times' own analysis of the story public editor Margaret Sullivan brought up the idea of "value-added coverage." This refers to the injection of analysis (opinion) into what would normally be a straight news story under the theory that the readership does not want just a rundown of facts since they could get that anywhere. The real "value" of the Times is the eloquence and intelligence of their writers, thus it behooves them to add their own spin and color to news stories.

I find this idea to be dubious at best. I doubt most progressives would excuse The Wall Street Journal or Fox News of covering news the same way. Readers are not often aware of this practice, thus they are reading opinion pieces that they think are straight news stories. This is dangerous. What's worse is that this Reddit story doesn't even really offer analysis or evidence to support its agenda; rather it just takes the social justice angle from the word go and treats it as the official story. Thus the "value-add" is really just emotional validation for a readership already sympathetic to that point of view. This is dangerous practice for anything calling itself a news outlet.

I stopped reading the New York Times years ago and this whole story adds confidence to that decision. While they have some good editorial writers, their straight news coverage is awful. The fact that they are still so highly regarded speaks to just how awful mainstream media coverage has gotten.

Here you have a supposed news story where the title and the first six paragraphs are so obviously biased that an attentive middle schooler could pick it out easily. In this supposed news story about a community backlash against Pao there is no mention of the censorious policies were instituted at Reddit that in large part led to that very backlash. It is a significant lie of omission, done again to characterize Pao as a noble failed crusader for the grand cause of social justice.

What amazes me is that highly educated adults read these kind of articles every day and see no issue. It's classic confirmation bias. It's the same reason republicans think the talking heads on Fox News are “fair and balanced.” When your beliefs became deeply ingrained into your identity you can start to construe them as facts beyond questioning, at which point you will be unable to see the problem with news stories parroting those beliefs as self-evident axioms.