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The Interview: Kara Swisher Gets It

By Janet Reilly

Photo by Spencer Brown

I’m not going to lie, on my way to interview Kara Swisher, tech’s preeminent, tough-as-nails journalist, I had a bit of a knot in my stomach. After all, New York magazine ran a piece calling Swisher the most feared (and well-liked, by the way) journalist in Silicon Valley.

For nearly three decades, Swisher has been covering tech’s every move and its major players. She is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, the co-founder of Recode (a tech and media news website), the host and producer of the Recode Decode podcast, and a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times. There’s a reason she has 1.2 million Twitter followers.

On a sunny morning in September, we agreed to meet at Swisher’s Castro district home for the interview. These days, Swisher lives in DC part-time to be with her two sons, who moved there with Swisher’s ex-wife, Megan Smith, a former Google executive, when Smith was the country’s chief technology officer during the Obama administration.

With Swisher’s tortoiseshell-colored cat wandering around, we settle into our conversation around the kitchen counter. Swisher is hospitable, pleasant, unedited and a walking encyclopedia on all things tech. I like her a lot. Our conversation runs the gamut from regulation of the industry to women in tech to her potential run for political office.

Meet Kara Swisher …

Most people get their start in journalism at a small-town paper or television market. You, however, started at The Washington Post. How did that happen? I worked for The Washington Post my junior and senior year [of college]. I was a stringer for them from Georgetown University. I got the job by complaining about a story and [by saying] how bad the people [at the Post] were at their jobs. I was asked by the editor to come down and tell him to his face. It turned out he was the metro editor, so he hired me. It was a really great way to get a job. I was super obnoxious, which I think was a lesson.

And, you went on to get a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. Yeah. I liked it a lot, but a lot of the [journalism] jobs were in cities I didn’t want to move to. Because I’m gay, I didn’t want to live in cities that were hostile, so I decided to go back to Washington and I got a job at a [TV show] called The McLaughlin Group. I also worked for the City Paper, which was a local newspaper … and I went back to the Post and did all kinds of different jobs. I worked my way up, essentially.

How did you end up in San Francisco? I ended up writing a book about AOL and the beginnings of the internet [in the mid-’90s]. I met Walt Mossberg, who was in the book, and he was the big reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. He got me hired at the Journal, so I moved to San Francisco. I covered the early internet when hardly anyone was covering it. I covered the boom through the mid-to-late-’90s.

What got you interested in tech? I got really interested because it was such an obvious shift in media that was going to change everything. Not everyone saw that — not many people saw it. I was really fascinated by email and about the internet. I was dating someone at the time and I was emailing with them in Russia over this antiquated version of email. I just thought it was a really big deal.

What were those early days like covering the industry and its players? It was like covering Hollywood before there was a Hollywood. I started covering [tech guys] when they were nobodies. They weren’t rich. They didn’t have any money. A lot of them were failing. So, I got to meet them before they were big deals … like Jeff Bezos, who had six people [working for him], Jerry Yang only had a couple people at Yahoo and Marc Andreessen was a teenager. It was a different time. It was nice to be there at the beginning.

Swisher talks shop with Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg during one of her famous and closely watched one-on-one interviews at Recode’s Code Con. Photo by Asa Mahat.

You’ve been covering tech for nearly 30 years. What is it that still excites you about the industry? It’s still evolving. Right now, we’re in a period of sort of a “tech-lash,” which is the backlash against tech. So it’s a really good time to assess what’s happened over the last 20 years — the good and the bad. It’s enough of an industry that it now has a history. I’m in the unique position to have known where it’s come from and to be able to talk about where it’s going, so I like that

You seem to have a love/hate relationship with Silicon Valley. What do you love and what do you hate? I love tech. You don’t want to be the person insulting Kitty Hawk, saying, “Oh, the wings weren’t long enough” or “It only got a foot off the ground.” You’re talking about flight, you’re talking about the internet, rockets, all kinds of really interesting technological things. But at the same time, there’s a price we pay as a society for these modern conveniences. You can’t talk about cars without talking about pollution, death and the way we’ve become this society that runs past each other. Every major technological revolution has a different impact.

You don’t want to be the person insulting Kitty Hawk, saying, “Oh, the wings weren’t long enough” or “It only got a foot off the ground.” – Kara Swisher

 

I’ve often heard you say you don’t think many of the people running today’s most successful tech companies “get it.” What do you mean by that? I think they get it. I just don’t think they want the responsibility for it. I think they try to abrogate their power. They don’t want to say they are the ones responsible for anything. They just want to act like, “Hey, we’re just providing these tools and they have no implications.” It’s not precisely like the people who make cigarettes, but it’s not unlike it either. These inventions have an impact. They have to think about the addiction impact. They’re selling an addictive product. They also sell a product that is very prone to misuse and they don’t have enough tools in place to control it.

What do you think are the most important things tech needs to change about itself or its culture? They pretend they’re not powerful when they’re the richest people on earth. Listen to Mark Zuckerberg talk. It’s like, “We, together, are going to fix this.” But, we, together, didn’t get the billions. We, together, didn’t create Facebook. When you have an industry, you have a responsibility for the implications of your industry. That’s all I’m saying. These people have benefited grossly from the success, and now they have to think about their responsibilities when there are problems

So you fault them for not having the vision to foresee problems and the potential misuse of the platforms they created? I think they saw them and pretended they didn’t see them, but now that they’re here, they’d rather solve them afterward. I think they need to be proactive, rather than reactive. Right now, they’re being reactive.

Major tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are increasingly in the spotlight and in the hot seat in DC. Are we likely to see more regulation soon? Maybe. There’s no regulation.

What would government regulation look like?I don’t know. I think you have to look at the Communications Decency Act and why they get immunity from their behaviors. Do they deserve immunity? I don’t know. Media companies don’t have immunity. Why do they have immunity from what happens on their platforms? Why aren’t they responsible? They’ve been given a wide swath of independence in order to grow, and they’ve grown big enough and they’re very powerful, and they determine a great part of our economy. Even a company like Amazon. It controls a lot, so maybe it should be subject to some regulation.

Let’s talk a little bit about women in tech, who are underrepresented at every level in Silicon Valley. Do you think the industry is making strides? No. The numbers are the same. It’s not a big priority for them. I mean, it’s one of the priorities, but it’s priority number 14. When you don’t see change for a very long time among a group of smart people, one can assume they want it this way. They talk about unconscious bias, but it’s just bias. They don’t give women the opportunities, they don’t give them the management skills, and once they do hire them, they don’t keep them there. It’s a problem. This should be the industry that’s way ahead of everybody else, but they aren’t.

Apple and Amazon are valued at over $1 trillion. Does that blow your mind? No. It’s just a number.

Are these companies too big? There’s no question that companies like Amazon and Google have enormous power over the markets they’re in. They’re individual monopolies. It’s really funny because they don’t really compete against each other. It’s like a bunch of semi-trailers going down the highway all together in lockstep. Nobody else can get by. The ones that are [probably] most problematic are Amazon, Facebook and Google. The others, not so much.

What’s the biggest misperception lay people have about Silicon Valley? That they know what they’re doing. That they know all the answers. I think they have this perception of being great managers. If they were great managers, how did they miss the Russia thing? They’re just not as smart as you think they are.

Swisher interviews Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the Code Conference. Photo by Asa Mahat.

Do you think tech companies should be doing more to solve some of the problems in San Francisco and the Bay Area? Yes. It’s disgusting how they’re doing nothing. Some of them are doing it. Marc Benioff is trying at Salesforce. But just as Wells Fargo and Bank of America were the leading civic players, it should now be all the tech companies here in this region. Every major industry in each era did it. The banks did it, the financial firms did it, every big industry should be part of the solution of the city they live in. It’s an idea. You’re part of this city, you’re part of this region, and you should be helping to solve some of its problems. They could help solve the homeless problem. They could help solve the housing problem. They created the housing problem, so they should help solve it. At the very least, they should be working on that.

I’m going to say a name and you tell me the very first thing that pops into your mind, OK? OK.

Elon [Musk]. Oh, Elon… Very creative.

Mark [Zuckerberg]. Not as creative. He’s very earnest — painfully earnest.

Bill [Gates]. Henry Ford.

Sheryl [Sandberg]. She tries very hard, but she’s got a lot of challenges at that company and they’re all on her and Mark [Zuckerberg]. She’s very talented.

Bezos. Jeff Bezos. Brilliant. Brilliant. Scary and brilliant.

Jack [Dorsey]. Very thoughtful. Still has not done the job he needs to do, but very thoughtful.

Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page]. Crazy.

Who do you most respect in the industry? Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook. They’re adults and it’s really nice dealing with adults. I like them because they’re very professional. Also, Brian Chesky of Airbnb. He’s incredibly thoughtful. I also think Evan Spiegel [CEO, Snap, Inc.] is really smart. He’s super smart.

You have so many things going, how do you unplug? I don’t unplug. Someone asked me the other day when I take a vacation and my answer was, “Never.” I like what I do. I like doing the TV show. I like doing the Times column. I like doing my events. I love my podcasts. So, I don’t do anything fun — except SoulCycle. I love SoulCycle.

You have been quoted as saying you’re considering a run for mayor in 2023. True? I did say that, but now that London Breed is mayor, it’s hard not to give her a chance. It looks like she’s doing a pretty good job so far. She’s got an enormous task, so let’s see how she does.

But you’re not ruling it out? No, of course not.

***The lighting round***

I’m happiest when … I’m with my kids.

My biggest regret … I don’t have any.

Biggest risk … Moving to San Francisco from DC.

If I had a magic wand I would … change the election, obviously.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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