The fluff in the WSJ article about the Pao sex-discrimination suit

PaoToday I’ll dismantle the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Ellen Pao-Kleiner sex-discrimination suit.

I don’t analyze facts, I analyze writing. You may think the lawsuit is bullshit or the verdict is bullshit, but that’s not my concern. What I will show you is that this article, like much of the news in mainstream publications, is padded with irrelevant and misleading material — bullshit. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but that’s the point — bullshit is pervasive even in quality media.

Just to fend off what I know is coming: I believe sexism in the tech world is real, and is important. I believe this case is important. But it’s lazy writing to just fling up a bunch of stuff about sexism and say this case got people talking. I want to read an insight I didn’t know before.

Here’s a short list of sins:

1 Attempts to justify the article. The second graph is a gratuitous attempt to justify the importance of the article — “international attention.”

The trial drew international attention because of the highly charged claim that the venture firm had stymied the career of a promising woman, and because it followed other recent allegations of unfair treatment at tech firms.

A sex-bias case in a major VC firm is clearly important. But the author of the article feels he has to tie this to a narrative about “allegations” of gender problems to make it part of a narrative. It’s his narrative, but he hasn’t made the connection.

2 Fashion commentary. Does it matter how Ms. Pao was dressed and that her mom was there?

Ms. Pao, dressed in a white linen jacket, waited in the tense courtroom as the verdict was read. Her mother sat behind her in the front row.

3 Creating “context” with a persuasive connection. The author fails to make an actual connection between this suit and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley in general. (A previous version of this article attempted to connect it to Gamergate, which is even more of stretch.) Just because things “follow” each other doesn’t make them connected — but it does make it easy to tell a story. Stories are persuasive, but that doesn’t make them true.

The trial followed recent reports showing few women in management or high-prestige tech jobs at companies like Google,Yahoo Inc. and Apple Inc.

4 Obligatory wishy-washy quotes from “experts.” In this case, the experts say “people are talking.” Does that teach us anything? Could anyone disagree with them? Do they mean anything?

[Investor Chris] Sacca thanked Ms. Pao for “reminding us” of the issue, adding, “Let’s not let the conversation end here.” . . . Katia Beauchamp, the co-CEO of Birchbox Inc., an online subscription service for beauty products, said the trial got people in the tech community talking. [Now gossip is a force for good?]

When you read any piece of writing, you should ask two questions: what’s missing, and could you say it shorter?

What’s missing:  I’d really like to know why, after all the lurid details that Ms. Pao shared, didn’t the jury agree with her? What’s the legal reason her case failed? Somebody has surely analyzed that, but not this article.

Could you say it shorter? Always a useful exercise: summarize the writing in three sentences. In this case, I can do it one sentence. Here’s my TL;DR version:

Even though Ellen Pao demonstrated in lurid detail how she was passed over and mistreated at Kleiner, she lost her sex-discrimination lawsuit.

In case you’d like to see my full analysis, I’ve shared it in a Google Doc. Anyone else can comment in that doc, too. (I hope I don’t regret that.)

Don’t just read and accept what your read — think about it. If it’s bullshit, don’t buy it.

Hat-tip to Gerard Francis Corbett for suggesting the article.

Photo by Diefenbach/Reuters.

6 responses to “The fluff in the WSJ article about the Pao sex-discrimination suit

  1. Thanks for your cutting through the fluff of the WSJ article. You could also have great time dissecting “Charges of sexism roil venture capital world” in the Boston Globe this morning. The article begins with a comparison of the case to “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” and in the third paragraph…”As with any good script, there was an intriguing subplot to Pao’s case.” In its comparison to fiction and scripts, it really diminishes the significance of this very real case. Am looking forward to following your insightful posts.

  2. Quality media? You used that construct in your critique- does such a thing exist anymore? I can find few media outlets that are worthy source of journalism.

    You find a corner within your site where you callout meaningful bullshit-free examples. I promise you that it will be a small concise list. It might become the future reference of serious journalism. That is, given that ship has not sailed…

  3. Josh –

    Very interesting analysis. The line about what she was wearing is not only BS but also indicative of the issue of the case. How many articles about male plaintiffs (or defendants) does the WSJ comment on suit color and fabric?

    One suggestion: can you dive into the root cause of the BS? Bull is not always random or the result of lazy writers; it is grounded in some sort of underlying viewpoint. Love to hear your take on why BS happens. Maybe we can get to the root cause and stop it before it happens. (Yes, I know taking up this line of discourse would be speculation and dangerously close to bullshit 🙂

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