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This New York Times Facebook Op-Ed Is a Joke

Image: Sam and Jessica Lessin (Getty)
Image: Sam and Jessica Lessin (Getty)

The New York Times op-ed section yesterday published an opinion piece that defended Facebook from calls that it should fact-check the news as a way of combating fake stories.

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In the piece, writer Jessica Lessin, who is chief executive of The Information, a $400-per-year news site for Silicon Valley insiders, mentions in the last paragraph that her husband “did work [at Facebook] for a brief period” and that her “fellow reporters and editors will argue that I am letting Facebook off too easy.”

Putting aside the content of the piece which, hey, makes some good points about why Facebook shouldn’t be a fact-checker, let’s look at what Lessin’s connections to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg really are.

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What Lessin calls her husband Sam’s “brief period” at Facebook was in fact four years in which Sam rose to Vice President of Product, one of a select circle who reported directly to Zuckerberg. Oh, did we mention that Sam and Mark were pals at Harvard and he was reportedly in the wedding party at Sam and Jessica Lessin’s nuptials?

Let Times public editor Liz Spayd give us some of the backstory:

What neither Lessin nor The Times’s opinion editors told readers is that Lessin and her husband, Sam, have close ties to Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Sam Lessin is a long-time friend of Zuckerberg since their days at Harvard. When young Zuckerberg was shopping for money to start his business, Sam took him around to meet investors. When Sam had a business of his own, Zuckerberg bought it, and then Sam went to work at Facebook. He became the social media giant’s vice president overseeing product, and one of a handful of top executives who reported directly to Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder was even reported to be in the wedding party when Sam and Jessica got married.

We reached out to Lessin and the Times last night and they never got back to us. In that time, Spayd, whose job is to pass a critical eye over the Times’ stories, published her searing take excerpted above. In it, she rightly says that “simply saying her husband ‘worked at Facebook for a brief period’ doesn’t cut it.”

I then went to Jessica Lessin to get her take on the modest disclosure. Lessin said she believes in conflict of interest disclosures and said she would have included whatever language the editors had requested. But she also maintains that her website has written critically of Facebook many times and says she has never been an apologist for the company.

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That may be true, but in a piece that Spayd characterizes as one “that could easily be interpreted as largely defending Facebook,” details matter.

Like the detail that Facebook dropped $20 million in Facebook shares to snap up Sam Lessin’s data storage startup drop.io in 2o1o. And the fact that those shares would skyrocket in 2012, while Lessin was still at the company, when Facebook’s market cap was $104 billion after its blockbuster initial public offering. 

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Op-ed editor Jim Dao responded to Spayd by saying that the piece “could have provided a bit more specificity,” but maintained that “the central question — did she (or in this case, her husband) ever have a financial relationship with the company — was answered. And since it was answered in the affirmative, readers were given some essential information upon which to base their judgments about the piece.”

Financial relationship is one thing. Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, a partner with a four-year Facebook stint under his belt and a long-term friendship to the point that Zuck was in the wedding party, is something else. Sam Lessin wasn’t a low-level engineer who worked for a couple of months at Facebook.

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This is all besides the substance of Lessin’s article which manages to find a narrow slice of the fake news debate in which she can defend Facebook. Lessin contends that the idea that Facebook should itself be fact checking each piece of news by hiring reporters is “deeply upsetting,” and she’s totally right. Facebook shouldn’t be doing this. This would be almost impossible. The problem is that almost nobody is arguing it, except for the journalism education brain trust Poynter.

If you’ve been following the debate over fake news and Facebook closely, you’d know that it centers more around Facebook building tools that block sites that spread intentionally false stories about Hillary Clinton secretly having Parkinson’s disease or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump. The idea that Facebook must hire news reporters and editors to solve the fake news problem was never a major point in the debate, and by shifting the conversation in that direction, Lessin makes Facebook’s fake news critics look as if they’re overreacting to the problem, and that there really isn’t much Facebook can do to solve it.

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Apart from keeping this all in mind when you read Lessin’s piece, keep it in mind when you read news startup The Information, which you can subscribe to for $400 per year here. 

Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated Facebook raised $104 billion from its initial public offering. Facebook’s market cap was $104 billion following its IPO.

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[The New York Times]

Staff Writer, Gizmodo | Send me tips: william.turton@gizmodo.com

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DISCUSSION

If you’ve been following the debate over fake news and Facebook closely

So, can you point me to an article of yours that is equally critical of Hillary Clinton fan and liar Kurt Eichenwald? Have you actually been following this closely? Objectively?

http://reason.com/blog/2016/10/11/newsweek-putin-trump-wikileaks

How about this fake news by Clinton supporter Franklin Foer:

http://www.snopes.com/trump-server-tied-to-russian-bank/

The Slate article’s appearance just one week prior to the November 2016 general election unsurprisingly turned heads, despite its speculative nature. On the same day, the partisan Occupy Democrats web site published an item claiming that in an “October Surprise” development, ABC News had uncovered “hundreds of millions of dollars” in payments from Russians to Trump:

Much of the content of the Slate piece came from persons unable or unwilling to disclose their identities and credentials (and were therefore unavailable for questions), but it wasn’t long before cybersecurity expert Robert Graham of Errata Security taclked the claims. In a more concise and far less speculative blog post, Graham cast reams of doubt on the entire claim set and noted that a hotel marketing management company (Cendyn), not Trump, controlled the domains in question:

Fake news isn’t just the sole bastion of asshole, terrible GOP journalists/rooters, or obviously Facebook as a disseminator. Maybe also question/criticize your own allies for once?

Shills and terrible journalists and biased journalists exist of any stripe. So too do fans of particular parties who would have read articles such as the above and never bothered to later research criticism of their claims, since doing so might puncture their biased, uncritical balloons. Get off your high horse. At least cite something like the above terrible liberal machinations to maintain at least the appearance of objectivity, hm?

How many millions of times were those articles shared on Facebook? Why didn’t you also cite them as part of the problem? Hm?

IMO the real problem is deluded partisans of all sides of the spectrum not bothering to investigate a story further if it initially seems to confirm their own beliefs. Maybe including you yourself and your “close following” of this, yet only citing examples from one fake news intended voter-swaying angle. Sorry dude, liberals are also guilty.

Hell, this article itself might be an example of “fake” or at least “willful selection bias” news. Look in your mirror next time you wake up and imagine that image was your younger self who might be pissed because you’re now a subjective, biased reporter.

I can imagine also thousands of Facebook “likes” on this article. Ironic since it’s not comprehensive and exhibits bias against only one type of voter or political entity/machinator/advocate of fake news. Maybe in your ideal world Facebook would also ban this article due to it’s biased and lousy journalism. Hm?

This article is embarrassing and myopic. I think it may have been typed while in a swaddle.