Where finance and media intersect with reality

Overcoming fear and favour in journalism

DSC00026

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.

via GIPHY

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.

 

The Daily Blind Spot newsletter

Latest blog posts

If viewing on a mobile simply tap the QR code

4 Responses

  1. Izzzyy, good luck with your new venture.

    “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 point is elegantly made in “Voyna i Mir” (“War and Peace”, as you obviously know). Recall when Price Andrey joined the Russian army as a staff officer in Kutuzov’s entourage, he quickly realised that military rank did not necessarily correspond to equivalent power. I accept, it goes without saying, that social status then was a major factor, not that that has completely disappeared today.

    In the City sometimes all a title has meant is the right to a company car, plus a few other perks, which again won’t be news to you.

    A more serious problem is that determination when walking a chosen path might well cross the line into obsession. When I was involved in the running of clubs, I was careful to ensure, as far as I was able to, that the treasurer was not a gambler. This paid off, in a negative sense, when a rival body found a bank account emptied … This also happened to a firm of solicitors that I had dealings with; one of the partners loved punting in stock market esoterica (putting it politely), he raided the firm’s funds in a big way when his investments went south. In my opinion neither man (yes, the were both male) was ordinarily dishonest, they just got buffeted by events and deluded themselves that one more heave to put things right would do; if, indeed, they were thinking at all in what must have been a low point in their respective lives.

  2. Izzy’s post was a classic example of what happens when a journalist goes outside her beat. I was a scientist back in the 1980’s. Muller’s conduct was not transgressive; it was bureaucratic. Scientists would always present their latest research to a grant board as if it was going to be their future research. (This gave them a better apparent retrospective record.) Their future research was thus always “off the books.” The grant reviewers were wise to this game, but they too, had to have a good retrospective record of grant awards. Everybody was happy (except perhaps for junior scientists without a corpus of work), and science got done.

  3. On Intercepted, a podcast of The Intercept, Ryan Grimm, Intercept’s DC Bureau chief, interviews Ro Khanna, the Democratic congressman form California. At the end of the interview Grimm asked Khanna if it wasn’t time for Biden to drop the Assange case. Khanna said, he was in favor of it, then mentioned problems with Assange’s behavior: not well redacted documents that put in danger people. This argument has been debunked but Grimm didn’t follow up.
    I’m quite sure Grimm knows the truth but found it convenient not to go further, because as Intercept’s DC chief he wants his calls picked up in future.
    I applaude both for talking and taking a position about Assange’s treatment, but it also meant keeping a smear alive.
    What’s your opinion ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: