In every journalism generation, there are various re-enactments of the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, in which Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, the powerful, vindictive Broadway gossip columnist whose self-interest shapes all he writes.
A version of that role is now being played by Kara Swisher, a proudly charmless and abrasive figure in San Francisco. On Aug. 28, Swisher helped break news of Google founder Sergey Brin's affair with a Google employee and his split from wife Anne Wojcicki, who is friends with Swisher and spouse Megan Smith, a high-ranking Google executive.
Swisher is not, per se, a gossip columnist but part of the technology press, with its fragile line between promotion and coverage and its protection racket M.O. of sucking up to sponsors and allies while ignoring or dinging those who don't fall into line.
With The Wall Street Journal's influential gadget columnist, Walt Mossberg, Swisher runs the Journal-owned business conference, D, where media and tech CEOs vie for attention and speaking spots. And she runs the Web site All Things D, also owned by the Journaland its parent, News Corp. All Things D (that is, digital) began as an adjunct to the conference but has morphed into a dominant tech news site -- and fiefdom and power base for Swisher.
Swisher and Mossberg have used their clout to become the kind of individual voices that can provide the new revenue streams that mainstream media companies say they want to encourage. Except that now the team, which has long been at odds with News Corp., is trying to use its independent power base and free agent status to find new backers to help them create a business to compete with the D brands. (While Mossberg is a Journalstaff member, Swisher is not; she has a contract that expires at the end of the year.)
In a further extension of technology business conflicts, and of how lines cross when journalists become journalism entrepreneurs, Swisher and Mossberg are seeking financial backing from companies that they otherwise cover as news subjects.
It's a stew of mixed-up allegiances. Swisher has skillfully made conflicts part of her professional persona.
The inherent conflict of interest of a journalist covering a business -- particularly a journalist who has major influence on it -- being married to someone with such a great financial stake in and career agenda at the company are obvious. So obvious, that Swisher has made copious disclosures about it. These disclosures, in which she says she herself has no personal financial interest in Smith's Google fortune (although Smith and Swisher have children together), have the curious effect of reminding everybody what an insider she is and what a power couple she is a part of. (continued...)
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