Finance oriented content will be building up on The Blind Spot over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime I want to explain a bit more about what I’m doing and why.
As I’ve already noted, I’m eager to create a media service that maximises independence, freedom of speech and critical thinking.
But I’m also a realist. Being absolutist about any such principle can also be self-defeating. That’s why I talk about maximisation rather than outright commitment to the cause. Exceptional situations that justify going against the doctrine will always arise.
My hunch is that the human condition will always struggle to figure out where the justifiable limits to those three principles lie.
That said, I’m currently of the opinion the balance has tipped too greatly in the opposite direction.
This is why, to guard against becoming part of the problem, I intend to be as transparent as possible about The Blind Spot‘s early days. This is to better document and expose how good intentions can get corrupted or undermined. But also to better understand what sort of decisions have the greatest bearing on how the values and agendas of any enterprise evolve.
British TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson started a farm to better understand the farming process. (And to make money.) In a similarly clueless vein I’m starting a media venture so as to better understand the chokepoints and hurdles associated with bringing something truly independent to life. (And still be able to make a living.)
For me this is an important process to go through because one of the biggest takeaways from my time as a manager is that power in name doesn’t always translate to power in practice. There seem to be far greater forces dictating how much influence any one person has beyond their position or their title. Being good at playing the system, cutting deals and politicking often endow someone with far more power than having actually good ideas.
This is why I was incredibly sympathetic to the point Richard Muller, an American physicist and emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, made to me when I spoke to him last year as part of my investigation into the Covid-19 lab leak theory. Muller, along with Steven Quay, had been leading the scientific effort to investigate the possibility that Covid-19 leaked accidentally from a lab and might even be man-made to begin with.
What I found hard to comprehend at the time (if it turned out to be true) was how could some of the smartest minds in the world have been so reckless? How had it come to a situation where despite there being a moratorium on gain of function work in virology it had been allowed to continue on in plain sight in China?
What Muller told me resonated greatly.
He pointed out how the really big life-changing innovations often emerge from avant-garde thinking, excessive risk taking and rule breaking. This is the risk that institutions are purposefully devised to moderate. But a scientist who is convinced he’s onto something great is going to be very hard to constrain.
If the official system won’t sign off or support his idea, he’s unlikely to just give up. Far more likely he will find creative ways to get the experiments under way.
This is what Richard Muller himself had had to do to achieve some of the breakthroughs he is now well known for.
“I had to use money that was given to me for one project, and actually spend it on another one,” he said.
Once his off-balance sheet work paid off and he was properly recognised, he felt an obligation to come clean about how he had been forced to cheat the system to achieve the success. In exposing the conflict his intent was to shine a light on the problem with the scientific funding system. “They don’t give us enough freedom so if you really want to make important discoveries, you have to know how to work the system,” he said.
His observations are a reflection of the same old cliché you hear over and over again in the tech space.
To make profound discoveries, advancements of technological leaps — or simply to put an idea you are convinced by into practice — you cannot simply toe the line. Sometimes you need to disrupt the system. Other times you need to go fully off balance sheet, or to find funding from different sources (hopefully not even entirely compromising ones).
It’s the old mad hat scientist cliché in a nutshell. It’s why Doc Brown in Back to the Future cuts a deal with Libyan terrorists to get access to plutonium. His motives are honorable. What makes him take the undue risk, is not being taken seriously by the official system.
So how does that tie into The Blind Spot?
In the journalistic field, being innovative means figuring out what uncomfortable realities should warrant investigations and which should not. It also means standing up to consensus and pushing ahead on stories that the evidence implies there is something to, even if doing so is unpopular. Other times it just means finding more compelling media or mechanisms to bring the stories to market.
The risk comes in getting stories wrong, getting sued or ruining your reputation. It also comes in covering topics that might upset your advertisers or deprive your institution of funding. Other times the risk comes in covering stories that you know will lose you or your colleagues access to power figures, and with that to the solid pipeline of low-grade stories that keep you afloat.
But being too fearful to rock the boat of consensus on an institutional level does little to uphold journalistic independence or neutrality.
Whether you are a scientist or a journalist, if you are truly dedicated to your idea or story, it will always be hard to take no for an answer.
Good innovation and risk go hand in hand.
As long as responsible protocols are adhered to (and the off grid worker doesn’t fall under the influence of an even more questionable pay master) taking risk shouldn’t have to end in disaster. Getting the balance right in an age where bureaucratic forces are pushing everything towards excessive safetyism can mean having to break the rules and moving experimentation off-grid.
That is what The Blind Spot is about.