Are journalists dumber than you and me?

Just wondering,
B. Doorho from DC


Journalists are usually good writers. And most good writers are intelligent. So, in general, journalists have above-average intelligence.

But rarely are journalists experts in whatever it is they’re reporting. So this creates the unfortunate phenomenon where 99% of the articles we read are well-written by smart people, who don’t understand what it is they’re writing about, or have some other agenda.

Articles in mainstream press usually sound fairly well-researched and authoritative. But if you’ve ever had an article written about you, or an article written about an event of which you have first-hand knowledge, you know what I mean.

Positive or negative, good or bad, there are always significant inaccuracies. Sometimes the entire article is wrong. Sometimes just a key detail is wrong. Sometimes incorrect assumptions are made. Sometimes important details are missing.

All journalists do it. Many of them have good intentions and do it by mistake because they don’t understand something, or because they don’t have all the necessary details. But many do it to make articles more interesting — after all, job #1 is they gotta “sell papers” (or pageviews, and so on).

I’ve had hundreds of articles written about me and my companies. I’ve also written thousands of pieces about other companies. So I have an unusual perspective, being both “in front of the camera” as well as “behind” it. I’ve been fortunate that most of the articles written about me have been positive. Sometimes too positive. I’ve been quoted as saying really smart-sounding things, where I knew I couldn’t have said them, because I didn’t know what some of the words in “my” quote meant.

When I started, some people in the media said I was some sort of an oracle, even though I was always very honest with the fact that 100% of the content on FC was submitted by users. I rewrote their submissions to make them funnier (and admitted i was never a journalist) but I certainly wasn’t making any brilliant predictions.

It didn’t matter. I remember at one point I was regularly asked to make stock predictions on CNN, Fox News, and other places. I did it a few times but stopped when I realized I contributing to the problem — I know a lot about a lot of things, but I’m no stock market expert. (or sports…i don’t know anything about sports)

But they said on-air that I was an expert.

So the people watching assumed I was an expert.

Another time I acted like a lazy kid for a reporter at USA Today — so they wrote that I was actually a brilliant businessman. The same week, I acted smart and wore a suit for a CNN interview — so they said I was some lazy kid acting like a businessman.


Early this year my current company, AdBrite, received an investment from Sequoia Capital, a high-profile investor with successful investments including Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Oracle. Around the same time, I hired a seasoned CEO to help me run the business.

Those were the two most successful events in my career up to that point. I decided to tell a journalist.

“We raised $8 million,” I said. “And a great CEO has joined!”

I went on to say, “AdBrite’s initial growth was boostrapped, and the company was profitable, but I decided to raise money so I could invest in people and equipment that will help the company grow even faster.”

Things were great.

“Were you forced out for the new CEO?” he asked.

A valid question.

“No,” I said. “I retained an executive recruiter on my own, and interviewed many people for the job.”

“Did your investors push back?” he asked.

“No, my investors are happy with what I’ve done with the company and they trust my judgment.”

The article? “[Kaplan] has stepped aside as CEO of a small, profitless start-up he founded in 2004. While he said he wasn’t forced out, he acknowledged that his board of directors didn’t try to dissuade him from stepping down.”

Variations of this story showed up all over the place, including the New York Times with a big picture of me looking sad.

So I’m all celebrating AdBrite’s growth with our board and employees, while old friends are calling me, “dude, what happened? are you okay? i thought your company was doing great..?”

The reporter was a brilliant writer. He wanted to write a “fuckedcompany guy gets fucked” story, and carefully crafted it so that it said one thing, while implying another.

Most readers were tricked into thinking something bad happened.

Though a few read it carefully and were like, “hmm. sounds like you raised money from Sequoia and hired a CEO. that’s good. why is the writer such a douche?”

Of course, if there’s one guy who’s dished it out, it’s me 🙂 So I’m the last to complain… and I’ve been lucky enough that most of my press has been on the “too positive” side. Ultimately all these experiences make for great stories and a great education.

But I wish everyone could experience these sort of things first-hand, the good and the bad. You’d read things differently.

Remember, there are three sides to every story:

  1. What the people involved claim happened
  2. What the journalist writes
  3. The truth

Rock on,

7 Responses to “Journalists”

  1. 1 Anonymous September 23, 2006 at 9:43 am

    Very good post. I totally agree.

  2. 2 Anonymous September 24, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Pud, I completly agree with you. Excellent post.

  3. 3 Big Shooter September 25, 2006 at 2:53 am

    Excellent post. Rock on.


  4. 4 Anonymous September 26, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    excellent post. well done!

  5. 5 The Senator September 26, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    I agree with you on all levels. Just look at Clinton and the Fox News thing.

    So, Pud, my question to you is what is the truth on that story?

  6. 6 Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 9:21 am

    Not bad. As a reporter, though, I’d like to add: the reporter who skewed his story on you was not a brilliant writer. The reporter was par for the journalistic course, coming into a story with a certain structure and roadmap in mind and making sure he both elicited and fit your quotes to conform to a preformulated storyline. Think it’s brilliant just because they had to have been ‘brilliant’ to do it to someone at your level? Nope, average. And sadly so.

  7. 7 Queenie November 26, 2006 at 1:51 am

    Job # i is not about selling papers, since less than 20% of a newspapers revenue is from actual sales.
    Job # 1 is please the advertisers, please the advertisers….


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