Yesterday Michael Arrington of TechCrunch responded to criticism over his investing in startups. His point is basically that people have all kinds of biases and since he’s disclosing his it shouldn’t be an issue. I made a similar point here so I agree with that part. But then he goes a little further…
AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, the chief whiner about our policy, is married to a Google executive. This is disclosed by her, but I certainly don’t see it as any less of a conflict than when I invest in a startup. And yet she whines. One of her writers, Liz Gannes, is married to a Facebook consultant. She covers the company and its competitors regularly. She discloses it as well, but it isn’t clear whether or not her husband has stock in Facebook. That’s something as a reader I’d like to know. And regardless, it’s a huge conflict of interest. I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company. Certain adjectives, for example, might be softened in the hopes of marital harmony.
I see where he’s coming from here. He feels accused and so he’s pointing out the hypocrisy of his accusers . But in the juicy personal conflict I think the real point is being missed here. So to pull it back to that I’d like to tell a very brief story (it’s less than a page long printed out and it’s important so give me some leeway here).
Years ago I took a U.S. History class. During a discussion of Richard Nixon’s Presidency I made the claim that “he was the President most responsible for the Vietnam war”.
I didn’t think twice about making this claim because it’s generally accepted that Nixon is the President most associated with the Vietnam war. But my professor challenged me to back up this claim and I found that I couldn’t. In fact, when you look at it objectively the opposite is true. He walked in the door committed to ending the war as quickly as he saw possible (See Addendum Below for more details).
So why is Nixon so closely associated with the War in Vietnam?
I didn’t know at the time but a couple years ago an interesting editorial crossed my path. During the Nixon administration the “most trusted man in News” was Walter Cronkite. So revered was Mr. Cronkite that, to this day, he’s held up by many as the prototypical unbiased journalist. Yet this Washington Post editorial paints a different picture. Apparently Mr. Cronkite was considered as a Vice Presidential candidate to run against Richard Nixon…
Walter Cronkite could have been vice president of the United States, and that would have both ended the war in Vietnam with some dignity and prevented Watergate from becoming "our long national nightmare."
It's not even a long story. In 1972 I was political director for the presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern. That July, just as a rather chaotic Democratic National Convention in Miami agreed to make McGovern the party's nominee, I convened a group of top campaign officials to come up with some options for the candidate to consider as his running mate. Armed with a poll showing Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted man in America, I proposed that the senator put forward Walter Cronkite for vice president.
My idea met with instant, and unanimous, disapproval.
Now there’s nothing wrong with being considered for office (though it does show Cronkite had a bias that was pretty widely known). But here’s the real issue…
Decades later, at a meeting of a corporate board on which they both served, George McGovern mentioned to Walter Cronkite that his name had been proposed as the vice presidential nominee at that stage of the campaign but was rejected because we were certain he would have turned us down. "On the contrary, George," the senator told me Cronkite replied, "I'd have accepted in a minute; anything to help end that dreadful war." At a later board meeting, Cronkite told a larger group that he would gladly have accepted the invitation to run with McGovern.
He would have ACCEPTED THE OFFER! Walter Cronkite, the most trusted name in news, continued to report on the Nixon administration even though his bias against them was so great that he would have given up his journalism career to run against them in the current election. In fact, I did a little further digging and found this…
Walter Cronkite, May 19, 1971: "Many of us see a clear indication on the part of this administration of a grand conspiracy to destroy the credibility of the press. No one doubts the right of anyone to seek to correct distortion, to right untruths ... but the present campaign, spearheaded by Vice President Agnew and Republican National Chairman Sen. Robert Dole goes beyond that."
So not only did he dislike Nixon’s politics he actively thought the Administration was trying to destroy his credibility. Could there be a larger bias than considering someone your personal enemy and the enemy of your entire profession?
Given that I’d make two points.
1. Not only does bias exist in Journalism now but it always has. The standard people look back to never existed and in fact things have gotten better. Cronkite never formally disclosed his political affiliations (though the above quote makes it clear IMHO)
2. As with the Vietnam War the facts are always out there. If you really think TechCrunch is biased than take their writing with a grain of salt. When they write about a company that looks interesting take 5 minutes to do a Google search for that company’s competitors. Then e-mail the TechCrunch link to those competitors and ask them to respond.
Bottom line: Use your Brain! There’s no reason to follow any writer’s opinion blindly. Spend 10 minutes on research and then you won’t have to worry about bias.
The Vietnam Addendum
I don’t really want to spend a lot of time arguing the Vietnam war with people (or Richard Nixon who I do think was horrible on a personal level). But there are some who believe Nixon escalated the war based on faulty assumptions (the same faulty assumptions I had and disproved when challenged by my professor). These assumptions are…
Cambodia and Laos: Nixon did launch campaigns on these two countries but if you look at interviews from the time his goal was largely to liberate those countries in anticipation of ending the war. The Nixon administration felt they would stay independent even if South Vietnam fell (which was largely true) so they took it upon themselves to drive the North Vietnamese out before moving to end the war.
The Bombing of Hanoi: The Nixon administration walked into office thinking the Johnson administration had weakened the American position so much that negotiation would be impossible. So they devised a plan to use air power as a showing of force. This limited the use of ground troops (and hence casualties) while weakening North Vietnam by showing the U.S. could strike at their capital.
In addition to that Nixon took steps from day one to dial down the war…
He pulled back ground troops: Look at the U.S. Casualties by year. Nixon took office in January of 1969…
He improved relations with Communist China and the USSR: Nixon was the first President to visit both Moscow and Beijing. Everyone remembers China but people forget that was part of a triangulation strategy to lure the USSR into talks (the idea being the USSR would fear improved relations between the U.S. and China and feel compelled to enter talks). It worked as Nixon was invited to meet with with a Soviet Premier (Leonid Brezhnev) and flew to Moscow to do so. All this is important because the early overtures to these breakthroughs limited support to North Vietnam (whose support was largely from the two communist countries)