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Have you heard that the biggest name in crypto is also a media company now?
Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said so himself. In a blog post this week, Armstrong declared that “every tech company should go direct to their audience, and become a media company.” Coinbase, Armstrong says, will now start posting fact checks in this “age of misinformation,” and aims to “publish the truth.”
Well then. Guess it's time for us at Decrypt to close our laptops and find something else to do. Maybe we can open a coffee shop or try goat herding. Or peddle shitcoins for a living. No need for the media if tech companies will kindly do our work for us, right?
But perhaps you'll indulge us in one more column.
What should we make of Armstrong's endeavor? The most common reaction has been bafflement. We spoke to several media professionals and they mostly wondered how Coinbase’s plan—blog posts to present their side of news stories and controversies—is any different from what other companies do. It's called P.R.
Coinbase is also building out a media arm, by the way. And as Axios reports, “Unlike a typical newsroom,” the editor Coinbase is looking to hire “would report into Coinbase's marketing team.” It’s a safe bet the editor’s content will be expected to jibe with Coinbase’s assessment of the truth. If it looks like marketing and sounds like marketing… is it media?
But maybe we shouldn't be so quick to sneer. After all, the media ambitions of Coinbase, Andreessen Horowitz and other Silicon Valley names is a shot across the bow at an already-battered journalistic establishment. Once upon a time, news outlets enjoyed a monopoly over information distribution that gave them enormous power, prestige and money. Today, that monopoly is utterly gone thanks to internet platforms that let anyone tell their story without the media middlemen. Many once-famous names in journalism are broke, irrelevant, or both.
Armstrong is not wrong that the traditional media often fails to tell a fair or fully accurate version of a story. Usually, he notes, this is due to “ignorance over malice,” but sometimes it's not. For instance, it is hard not to note the New York Times' relentlessly negative coverage of Coinbase—and wonder if the antagonism was exacerbated by Coinbase's decision to front-run the Times scoop about controversy over Coinbase's approach to Black Lives Matter.
And it's no secret that media outlets are political. Rupert Murdoch gladly loses millions every year in owning the New York Post because the tabloid gives him a megaphone to harass his liberal political enemies. And the patriarchal clan that owns the Times ensures the paper presents their Manhattan liberal worldview as objective truth. Meanwhile, individual journalists might pull punches to preserve relationships with certain companies, or gin up exaggerated headlines to please readers or their editors.
In this context, Coinbase the “media company” is merely one more partisan voice in a fractious news landscape. And Armstrong is at least aspiring to behave decently—pledging that Coinbase will acknowledge its mistakes, avoid needless antagonism, and so on. (We can fact check him on that over time.)
The problem here is that Armstrong is making the same mistake as some in traditional media, assuming that Coinbase alone possesses the truth and that those who disagree must be wrong and in need of correcting. This mentality is a recipe for tribalism and groupthink. Surprise: Coinbase’s "truth” is likely to reflect the interests of Coinbase, and of Armstrong's clique of billionaire Silicon Valley libertarians. So there's a very real risk that Coinbase's "fact-checking" will devolve into out-and-out propaganda sooner than later.
Even more troubling are the lessons Armstrong draws from other companies’ approaches to media. He blames Facebook's unpopularity on negative media coverage of Facebook—without acknowledging the company's disgraceful behavior that gave rise to that coverage in the first place. He praises Peter Thiel, who spent tens of millions to destroy the web site Gawker, as the “canonical example” of fighting back against hostile media.
But the worst part of Armstrong's declaration is his implied rejection of the role of a free press in American democracy. Since the founding of the republic, independent news outlets have provided a critical role in surfacing information that powerful people preferred to keep buried. This includes political scandals—Watergate, Lewinsky, and so on—but also business scandals. Reporters at the Wall Street Journal and Fortune exposed the fraud at Theranos and Enron. It is inconceivable that those companies' own media or “fact-checking” divisions would have published what those traditional media outlets did.
The bottom line is that Armstrong's expanded foray into media might provide useful information about crypto and his company, but let's not pretend Coinbase is going to produce journalism. That's the job of Decrypt and other news media outlets. And we're not going anywhere.
This is Roberts on Crypto, a weekend column from Decrypt Editor-in-Chief Daniel Roberts and Decrypt Executive Editor Jeff John Roberts. Sign up for the Decrypt email newsletter to receive it in your inbox in the future. And read last weekend's column: 5 Lessons From Bitcoin's Very Bad Week.