Who Speaks for Tech?

by Randy Shaw on December 16, 2013

We are witnessing a remarkable double standard in the media’s treatment of tech workers. It has transformed completely unknown people who happen to work in tech into spokespeople for the industry solely due to their rants against the poor. While the media does not treat Rush Limbaugh’s sexist attacks on women as reflecting the views of any group Limbaugh is a part of— white men, Republicans, talk show hosts—it promotes any tech person who shows contempt for the poor as reflecting a larger industry problem.

Peter Shih was an unknown techie until his rantings against homeless people got him on the front page of the November 24, 2013 New York Times. It was irrelevant that Shih was speaking only for himself. He gave the media the “smoking gun” it needed for its story line that the tech industry is insensitive to others. Last week, the equally obscure Greg Gopman followed Shih’s strategy for generating publicity for his start-up by also bashing homeless people. Once again, the media treated Gopman as if he were a spokesperson for the tech world. People in all fields of work express hostile views toward homeless persons, but the media only associates tech workers’ comments as speaking for their industry.

I am always suspicious of news stories driven by personal anecdotes. A reporter who opposes affirmative action can always find an African-American to speak against the policy. Media opposed to rent control routinely quote tenants who oppose the policy, and those opposed to unions find low-wage workers who share this view.

Using an individual’s perspective that is at odds with the constituency they claim to represent is an unfortunate but standard media practice. And despite its dishonesty it continues because it offers either a “new” perspective on an issue or contributes to a news frame that otherwise would not exist.

Tech Attitudes Toward the Poor

I challenge anyone to offer evidence that San Francisco’s tech sector is more hostile to homeless people than people working in real estate, insurance, law, health care, or any other industry. Yet when a real estate agent or insurance rep attacks homeless people, one never sees an article about how their comments reflect troubling values associated with their industry.

One does not even see the real estate industry as a whole blamed for Ellis Act evictions. Yet you can be sure if any tech employee is connected to such action, the media will frame it as reflecting tech’s disdain for longtime San Francisco residents.

What is the media’s goal in elevating previously unknown tech workers into spokespersons for tech solely on the basis of their anti-homeless rants? The obvious answer is that it creates “news.” It allows reporters to write stories getting reaction from others to these comments, and to recycle now familiar themes of a tech “backlash” based on the industry’s “insensitivity.”

Many people are angry at tech, blaming the influx of high-paid workers for rising rents and home prices. But that’s very different with falsely ascribing anti-homeless attitudes to a large and diverse workforce when there is no evidence that these workers have such views.

I have yet to see a negative comment about the poor associated with a female tech worker, of which there are many. Yet the media wants the public to believe that Shih and Gopman also speak for the women of tech.

The New York Times article noted above that highlighted Shih’s comments gave passing mention to Salesforce donating millions to public schools. But it did not mention that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife donated $850,000 to Hamilton Family Shelter to house homeless families, a fact that might have led readers to question the thesis that Shih’s anti-homeless views “spoke” for tech.

The December 9 controversy about the union organizer who posed as a Google worker and then made inflammatory comments to protesters circling a Google Bus— “Why don’t you go to a city that can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.”— also exposed some media’s eagerness to believe the worst about tech.

From a strategy standpoint, if you bring in a union organizer from Oakland to impersonate a San Francisco Google worker you need to be 100% certain that his true identity is not revealed. And prior to this revealing, the strategy clearly worked, as the Bay Guardian and other media were all over the incident, finding yet another “smoking gun” against tech.

Once the organizer’s identity was exposed, the impersonation strategy backfired. Now it appeared that since they could not get an actual Google worker to state that those who cannot afford the city should leave, activists had to pose as such.

But the organizer correctly understood the media’s eagerness to believe the worst about tech. His strategy depended on normal journalistic practices—such as confirming “the worker” actually worked for Google before writing about the incident—being bypassed at least long enough for the story to get out.

Which it did.

Now that new start-ups know they can get free media by bashing homeless people, I expect to see ongoing stories about the next Peter Shih or Greg Gopman. What I do not expect to see is the media attributing Limbaugh’s comments to media industry values—-as only tech is defined by obscure workers espousing similarly extreme views.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

Filed under: Archive