(This post was originally published a couple of days ago on Medium. I’ve added a post script which does not appear there.)
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and was shocked to hear the guests talk about their clothing brand as if it were very special and blindingly original.
They insisted that their brand spoke to young women with a feminist message of empowerment. I kept waiting for the host to gently point out that there were a couple of precedents here.
For starters: One hundred years of suffragette feminism, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Walker (pictured), to say nothing of the work of Dove and the brilliant “Throw Like a Girl” videos by Lauren Greenfield for Always.
But no. He sat by while his guests sang their own praises. The best he could muster were obliging prompts on the order of “so tell me, would you say you were totally awesome or merely utterly fantastic?”
The host is from the creative world, so he’s not trained as a journalist. And podcasts are, as we know, a planet still forming.
More’s the pity.
Edison Research found that 48 million people listened to podcasts last year. The number grows steadily. This universe expands steadily. But it’s not clear that it is maturing as a form of discourse. My fear: that it is expanding but a little witless, that it’s agreeable but a little toothless.
The world of journalism has taken this question on, and the podcast has something to learn from this precedent.
The Society of Professional Journalism has code of ethics. The code asks that members adhere to four principals:
1. Seek Truth and Report It.
2. Minimize Harm.
3. Act Independently.
4. Be Accountable and Transparent.
In the podcast world, this might be boiled down to a simple imperative:
cut out the shameless glad handing and ask real questions in the pursuit of real answers. Do not suffer fools.
No sooner had I published to this post to Medium than I found myself listening to a Recode Media interview by Kurt Wagner of Nick Bell, Snap VP of Content. I was impressed by Wagner’s willingness to ask the difficult question. Several of them. How well was Bell’s company doing and what did he (really) think about the share price? Why does Bell use “sexy selfies” when we might expect “serious journalism?” Most devastatingly, Wagner asked Bell if he regrets having failed to engage the creator community. (This is a difficult question because it suggests a fundamental failure to grasp perhaps the biggest change ((and opportunity)) in the digital world.) Bell took these questions in stride, but the interview was now richer and more illuminating. No glad handing here. (It occurred to me that one behavioral marker of the difficult question is the awkward silence. There were a couple. You could almost hear Bell thinking, “He did not just ask me that!”)
I looked Wagner up and was interested to see that he puts the “ethics question” at the center of of how he describes himself.
Senior Editor, Social Media
Kurt Wagner has been a business and tech journalist since 2012 and was previously reporting for Mashable. He also covered general tech and Silicon Valley news in his first job as a tech reporter with Fortune magazine, based in San Francisco. Originally from the Seattle area, Kurt graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.S. in communication and political science. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Santa Clara, the university newspaper, for two years.
Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.
In June 2016, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a job as an administrative assistant with Instagram’s marketing and community team. She is now a member of Instagram’s brand marketing team. She does not share material information with me about specific company projects or plans. She has been awarded a small stock grant as part of her compensation package, in which I do not have any ownership or control.
I have various 401K and IRA accounts, as well as non-retirement mutual fund stock accounts that invest in a wide-ranging basket of stocks, over which I have no control. I do not own stock in any individual tech companies.
I do not consult for any companies, nor do I accept gifts or products of value from companies I cover. I do not accept travel or accommodations from companies I cover.
Recode is owned wholly by Vox Media, a company with an audience of 170 million worldwide. It has eight distinct media brands: The Verge (Technology and Culture), Vox.com (News), SB Nation (Sports), Polygon (Gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (Shopping, Beauty and Fashion), Curbed (Real Estate and Home), as well as Recode (Tech Business).
Vox Media has a number of investors, including, but not limited to, Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal, both of which are owned by Comcast Corporation.
My posts have total editorial independence from these investors, even when they touch on products and services these companies produce, compete with, or invest in. The same goes for all content on Recode and at our conferences. No one in this group has influence on or access to the posts we publish. We will also add a direct link to this disclosure when we write directly about the companies.
Blogger, heal thyself
It’s all very well to play the “J’accuse” card. In point of fact, I do not have a Wagnerian statement of ethics that lets the reader know what standards they can expect of this blog. And I should. (And it says something about the haze of self congratulation that surrounded blogging in the early days that it never occurred to me to criticize blogging in the way I am now criticizing podcasting. Bitter? Ok, a little.)
I will leave the full statement for another day. But I can say this much.
1) I have never expected, solicited, or extracted any sort of payment for a blog post.
2) I have never written in a laudatory manner about anyone for whom I have served as a consultant.
I have written a lot of laudatory pieces. My “beat” at this blog is contemporary American culture and I am especially interested when I see people (by which I mean creatives, writers, agencies, brands, journalists, bloggers) making interesting (witty, rich, powerful) contributions to that culture. My guiding assumption is that much of American culture comes from commerce and we have done a poor job looking at the intersection between culture and commerce. Inevitably this means I look at the work of branders and agencies in an approving way. How does they express culture, how does they improve culture? But in 1.5 million words, I have not got any sort of payment for these posts. Before or after the fact. I’ve never even got so much as a bottle of scotch or a note of acknowledgement. (Agencies like to think they exist sui generis. And this says a lot about why the creative and commercial world struggles so much these days. But it’s also a good thing. It keeps temptation at bay.)
3) It’s one thing never to write in a laudatory manner. If we are to follow the example of journalism in general and a journalist like Wagner in particular, we are obliged also to write negatively. This blog has lots of criticism. I have criticized Gillette, P&G, and Coca-Cola, to name just three. Bad work (i.e., lazy, stupid, craven work) deserves to be called out and scorned. I am sure this has cost me clients who supply the income that keeps my “self-funded anthropology” enterprise afloat. So this has been something more than a cosmetic gesture. It’s cost me.
There may be an official anthropology code here. (And it is almost certainly an exercise in the field’s solipsism, effectively discouraging all interactions with all parties. God forbid, the field should let in data that might disturb its orthodoxies.) But certainly there is an unofficial “University of Chicago” ethics code. This says, “you are in this inquiry for the inquiry, and the moment you start to shill, you cease to inquire.”