New York Times Public Editor Slams Facebook Op-Ed

By William Turton on at

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

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.

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.

That may be true, but in a piece that Spayd characterises 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 in 2o1o. And the fact that those shares would skyrocket in 2012, while Lessin was still at the company, when Facebook raised $104 billion from its blockbuster initial public offering.

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 judgements 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.

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 centres 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.

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. [The New York Times]