Writing Well about Terrible People

This morning, I set myself the task of turning my response to a New York Times article into something less ephemeral and annoying than a tweetstorm. I gave myself one hour to do it, which mostly meant not letting myself spend another two hours adding more links.

I have a lot of feelings, and I’m not going to talk about any of them.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that men who use pseudo-science to question the genetic fitness of their female colleagues are appropriate subjects for big-portrait features in the New York Times. Let’s assume that the best way to approach such a subject is a high-level overview that maintains a stance of neutrality toward its subjects. Just the facts.

Choices in Content

Here are some things one could do, as a reporter or an editor, to frame an article like this one:

  • Include the voices of women who work with—and are directly affected by—these men. Include the voices of the female executives the subjects accuse of unfairly hiring inferior women. Include the voices, in fact, of any women other than a paid legal advocate of the subjects, a VC concerned about the subjects’ fear of being castigated, and a “former feminist” advocate of the men’s rights movement. (In fact, the article quotes one other woman—more on that below.)
  • Provide statistics about how many women are presently employed in the various strata of the tech industry, offering a baseline for the otherwise free-floating claims made by the subjects about discrimination against men.
  • When referring to its subjects’ nominally scientific claims that women are biologically unfit to make software, contextualize these claims. Quote any of the dozens of men and especially women with who have extensively critiqued the scientific claims made by James Damore. Or indeed, quote anyone on the subject other than two powerful men in tech offering their support for the subjects’ positions.
  • When giving the last word goes to a male executive who claims that there are simply no qualified women available to hire, offer context about the very long-running conversations about the “pipeline problem.”
  • Refer—even by linking, if a paragraph is too much—to the body of scientific work examining the ways in which women’s intellectual and professional contributions are tied to emotional labor and subject to pervasive systematic devaluation, offering essential context for a series of unquestioned claims that women are ultimately inferior.

Those are things one could do, and things Nellie Bowles and her editors decided not to do in their profile of tech-industry men’s rights figures.

Choices in Quotation

Bowles quotes one woman who isn’t a supporter of or lawyer for its subjects, and the way she does it is extraordinary:

Those leading Silicon Valley’s gender equality push said they were astonished that just as the movement was having an impact, it opened up an even more radical men’s rights perspective.

“It’s exhausting,” said Joelle Emerson, who runs Paradigm, a company that designs diversity strategies. “It’s created divides that I didn’t anticipate.”

Bowles paraphrases a group of leaders as saying that the movement for gender equality has “opened up an even more radical men’s rights perspective.” And then she quotes Joelle Emerson in such a way that it’s impossible to say which “it” she finds exhausting, and to suggest that the movement for equality has itself “created divides that [she] didn’t anticipate.” Not people, not men’s rights advocates, but the movement.

Those are interesting choices.

The Question of Intent

I suspect that Nellie Bowles, who is a longtime tech reporter, is not at all interested in carrying water for James Damore and his merry band of throwbacks. I assume that she and her editors are well-intentioned journalists trying to cover an emotionally charged story in a Times-y way. But their intentions don’t matter here, any more than they matter when the Times (and most other major papers in the US) offers similarly context-free coverage of Donald Trump and Richard Spencer.

Informing the reader means finding ways to tie even short articles to the seething complexity—and even scientific facts—that underlie necessarily simplified and abbreviated quotations and paraphrases. Eschewing context means the reader must assemble it for herself or risk assuming that the various views presented in a neutrally framed article are roughly equal in reason and virtue. Offering too much context, even in a neutral framing, can make an article feel dry. Many journalists appear to fear the latter a bit more than the former, which results in conventions of coverage that drain important topics of their real weight and life.

This balancing act is an enormous challenge, and I’m grateful that my daily work doesn’t involve wrestling with it. But this article, and so many like it, fail to accomplish a centrally important aspect of making sense of the world, and I think that matters.

Edited to fix typos and an omission of a female VC noted by helpful tweeters.