High-Tech Pep Squad

Capitalism scored over ethics at a November 16 debate among Internet heavies at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where a wired primer on reporting in the Internet age quickly devolved into an ethical pissing contest. The debaters—New York Post tech gossiper Chris Nolan, David Faber of CNBC, investment analyst David Alger, Henry Blodget of Merrill Lynch and David Gardner of The Motley Fool, all of whom rely on Internet success for their livelihoods—seemed like a pompon squad for Silicon Valley, saying journalists overplay the uncertainty of the skyrocketing stock market.

Blodget pointed to Yahoo!'s ability to draw market share from different industries as a reason that the media—and the public—should be wowed by the business potential of the Internet. Blodget cheered on high-tech reportage: "Give the people what they want," he encouraged. But Faber noted that, overall, the pressure for happy Net stories "has lowered the bar in journalism."

"CEOs feel as though they can dictate coverage," Nolan agreed. Valley journalism tends to take a laudatory trade-publication style and is often "captive to advertising in ways that would shock and appall everyone in this room," she said.

Except perhaps The Motley Fool. Fool cofounder Gardner applauded happy journalism and jeered the "investigative" approach that can be critical of technology companies. "It's Watergate all over again," he said. Instead, media should write about "why companies that do well do well."

Amy Haimerl, managing editor of the AlleyCat News, was disgusted by Gardner's swipe at hard news. "I think it was one of the most appalling statements I've heard in a very long time," she said afterward. "If we get any softer, we might as well turn in our press cards and become PR agents."

Gardner denounced the weekly magazine "that starts with a 'B' "—apparently referring to Business Week—for its critical reporting on Internet companies and their stocks' volatility, particularly in 1996, when America Online suffered a shutdown from customer overcrowding. In fact, Gardner said, The Motley Fool reported then that the logjam was a good sign that AOL was fabulously popular—and its stock rose in response.

Yes, but, Nolan interjected, The Motley Fool—motto: "to inform, to amuse, to help you make money"—was distributed by, yup, AOL at the time. (Gardner had no response to Nolan.)

The former "Talk Is Cheap" high-tech gossip columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, Nolan isn't a stranger to ethical battles of wit. She was suspended from the San Jose daily newspaper in mid July for netting $9,000 by following a friend's tip to buy shares in Autoweb.com at a price not offered to the public.

Nolan has resurfaced at The New York Post, where her gossip column will launch in December. She left behind a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing accusing her former employers of sexual discrimination, retaliatory firing and unequal pay, because, she says, she was paid less than male columnists.

At Columbia, Nolan defended her investment decision, saying she'd known the CEO for eight years. But she added that she's now looking at other ways to pay the bills, saying she no longer has a stock portfolio.

As it should be, said Columbia new-media professor Steve S. Ross, who laments "too much inside back-scratching" in the tech world and slipping ethics, especially in the investment arena. "The barriers to journalists investing directly are falling," Ross said in an e-mail. "Pisses me off. Bad, bad."

The panel's capitalist approach also raised eyebrows. Asked about the growing gap between digital haves and have-nots, Alger said: "We're not a banana republic here. . . . All this wealth is created for the very best reason." Gardner was more direct: "I don't think there's anything wrong with a gap between the rich and the poor."

Grad student Lydia Polgreen responded angrily to Gardner: "I wouldn't visit your site." Ross said later that The Motley Fool has "good and bad stuff. These guys have sunk to the level of entertainment as much as journalism. . . . Useful to read, but they've squandered their authority."

Ross pointed to a disconnect between panel and students. "The students understood ethics and not business. The panel was good at business but didn't understand ethics," he said.

 
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