The media is misrepresenting both James Damore and Google. The result is divisiveness.
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The media is misrepresenting both James Damore and Google. The result is divisiveness.

August 11, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Google cancels meeting to discuss diversity policies, citing employee safety ‘concerns’

On Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai cancelled a companywide meeting, citing employee safety “concerns.” The meeting had been called to discuss a memo that former Google software engineer James Damore had written about the company’s diversity policies. Demore was later fired after releasing the memo.

Damore’s 10-page memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” argues that gender difference in the technology industry can “in part” be explained by biological “distributions of traits between men and women.” For instance, he says that women experience higher levels of anxiety and a lower tolerance for stress, and that women in general have “stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men,” which is why fewer women do work such as “systemizing” and coding.

Damore says that “Google’s left political bias has created” a single-focused culture “that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence,” adding that in the company “some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.” He proposes options for “non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap,” and a re-evaluation of Google’s diversity programs.

The memo was shared on Google’s internal networks. Google subsequently fired Damore for violating the company’s Code of Conduct, which prohibits “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

At the Thursday meeting, Google had planned to discuss questions submitted by employees about the memo, the company’s diversity policies and how the company handled Damore’s dismissal. These questions had been shared internally, so other employees could vote on which questions they wanted to see debated.

In the email cancelling the meeting, Pichai wrote that the “questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally. Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.” He said in the coming days the company would “find several forums to gather and engage with Googlers” in open discussion.

Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. has 76,000 employees.

Distortion Highlights

  • According to most media coverage, either James Damore is wrong for writing the memo and Google did right by firing him, or Damore did no wrong and Google fired him unfairly.
  • These perspectives misrepresent both Damore and Google.  
  • Read more below to see how the coverage supports divisiveness instead of open dialogue and resolution.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Intolerant

    Right-wing groups seized on Mr. Damore’s ouster as another example of what they said was Silicon Valley’s intolerant stance toward conservatives, while hailing him as a hero with the courage of his convictions. (The New York Times)

    Google’s firing of Mr. Damore has sparked debate within Google and nationwide about the company’s diversity program and whether it is intolerant of conservative viewpoints. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Controversial

    Google Cancels Town Hall After Employee’s Controversial Diversity Memo (NPR)

  • Backlash

    The memo caused a backlash … (NPR)

  • Climate of fear

    Damore’s ten-page manifesto, which was met by an immediate backlash, described a climate of fear, in which employees who challenge prevailing leftist narratives at the company are faced with immediate threats to their career. (Breitbart)

  • Thrown into turmoil

    Google was thrown into turmoil last night after the company fired James Damore, author of a manifesto defending viewpoint diversity and a fact-based approach to the alleged gender gap in tech. (Breitbart)

  • Hysteria

    The hysteria has only ever reached a higher level once. (Breitbart)

  • Inflaming

    At Alphabet, which has nearly 76,000 employees, Mr. Damore’s firing has posed a test for how employees’ views compare with their co-workers’, inflaming feelings still raw from the divisive presidential election, employees said. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Drawn the Ire

    The firing has also drawn the ire of some far right-wing commentators, who in recent days have harassed online Google employees who publicly supported the firing. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Commiserated

    Google’s liberalism was clear at an internal town-hall meeting after the presidential election, where top executives commiserated with employees over Donald Trump’s victory, according to a recording of the meeting viewed by the Journal. (The Wall Street Journal)

While some of the media coverage of Damore’s memo and Google’s response is fairly neutral and fact-based, other reporting uses spin and cherry-picked information that paint the issues as absolutes. Either Damore is wrong for writing the memo and Google did the right thing by firing him, or Damore did no wrong and Google fired him unfairly.

Regardless of which perspective is favored, the biased coverage may lead readers to a faulty conclusion, that one side is totally right and the other is completely wrong. The problem? Not only does that misrepresent the nuances of each, it’s also divisive. That division may discourage the public from looking for areas of common ground, common goals, and constructively discussing and finding workable solutions.

Let’s look at a just a few examples from Breitbart and The New York Times, two outlets that represent either side of the ideological divide:

Breitbart

Spin: Breitbart published a special series called “Rebels of Google” that cited employees expressing criticism of company culture.

  • Is Google like an oppressive government regime, and these few brave souls are fighting the power? Maybe Breitbart doesn’t mean for us to take the metaphor so literally, but the word choice still could affect how we think about the parties involved.

More spin: Breitbart’s coverage says people claim Google has “witch-hunts and intolerance” and that the “upper echelons” are “dysfunctional.”

  • These spin words, which aren’t direct quotes, are disparaging toward Google and imply it’s repressive and inept.

Misleading interpretation: Breitbart’s lead sentence says Google canceled the meeting “due to fear that details of the meeting may be leaked online.”

  • The CEO actually wrote that that employees are “now being named personally” online and were “concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.” Although Breitbart includes this later, readers may already assume Google has a different intent, i.e. trying to hide something rather than a concern for personal safety.

One-sided perspectives: Breitbart quotes an anonymous sources saying, “Bias in support of these discriminatory and hostile behaviors goes pretty much all the way up, management’s just clever enough not to add to the fire (often)…”

  • In its coverage of the memo and its impact, Breitbart quotes people critical of Google’s practices. But it does not quote other views — such as people who have benefitted from diversity policies, or are members of minority groups working in the tech industry.

The New York Times

Spin: “Google is grappling with the fallout from the memo…”

  • The word “fallout” means lingering consequences, and can refer to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Using this word makes the memo itself seem destructive.

Cherry-picked information: The Times cites only one element of Damore’s argument on alleged biological differences, paraphrasing his argument as “women experiencing higher levels of anxiety and a lower tolerance for stress.”  

  • This is perhaps the most controversial or inflammatory example Damore gives in his memo, and it’s taken out of context. Citing only this point, and not other parts of his argument that might seem more favorable to women, misrepresents his paper.

Which leads to…

Missing information: Here are a few parts of Damore’s memo that the Times does not include:

Damore acknowledges his own biases.

He recognizes that both left and right perspectives have value and flaws.

He agrees that there are many overlaps in male and female “traits.”

He presents five “non-discriminatory” proposals to reduce the gender gap.

He explicitly says that diversity is not “bad” or that Google shouldn’t work to fix biases.

He presents 10 specific proposals to “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group.”

  • Combined with the spin and choice to cite the more sensational aspects of the memo, the missing info could give people a biased and misleading understanding of what Damore wrote.

Common ground?

People on all parts of the political spectrum seem to approach issues of hiring, race and gender with at least one similar assumption: we should do what’s right, fair and just. But people have different views on how to achieve this, often depending on their political ideology. Put simply, conservatives might believe that it’s fair to hire solely based on earned qualifications and merit (regardless of sex or race), while the political left might believe that it’s better to try to actively counter historical oppression and discrimination (even if some hard workers miss out). While these are generalizations, the point is that both sides seem to have similar goals.

Without getting into the advantages and limitations of each perspective, just imagine for a moment that the news media didn’t present complex issues as black and white, and gave people more exposure to the nuances. Imagine if political debates began with the goals we have in common, and imagine if companies, politicians and members of the general public were more willing to openly discuss any issue without attacking each other personally.

What a wonderful world…

Fiction
or
Fact

The Wall Street Journal

“Google’s liberalism was clear at an internal town-hall meeting after the presidential election, where top executives commiserated with employees over Donald Trump’s victory, according to a recording of the meeting viewed by the Journal.”

Google held a companywide meeting after the presidential election. Some executives and employees reportedly discussed Trump’s election.

The New York Times

“Google is grappling with the fallout from the memo…”

Google had planned to hold a meeting to discuss the memo. The meeting has been cancelled for now.

Breitbart

“Google was thrown into turmoil last night after the company fired James Damore, author of a manifesto defending viewpoint diversity and a fact-based approach to the alleged gender gap in tech.”

Google dismissed software engineer James Damore after he wrote and distributed a memo about the gender gap in the tech industry.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Google fired James Damore, author of a manifesto discussing viewpoint diversity and a fact-based approach to the alleged gender gap in tech. (Breitbart)


Damore’s memo links to studies to support some of his assertions, so they are “fact-based.” But they may not provide definitive conclusions, or the only “facts” on the matter. There are also published studies and articles that counter the conclusions drawn in the sources he cites.

As described in The Distortion, here are a few parts of Damore’s memo that the New York Times does not include:

  • Damore acknowledges his own biases.
  • He recognizes that both left and right perspectives have value and flaws.
  • He agrees that there are many overlaps in male and female “traits.”
  • He presents five “non-discriminatory” proposals to reduce the gender gap.
  • He explicitly says that diversity is not “bad” or that Google shouldn’t work to fix biases.
  • He presents 10 specific proposals to “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group.”