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Hack WatchNewsletter | June 30, 2023

Hack Watch: The Dangerous Cult Of The Entrepreneurial “Innovator”

Hack WatchMedia Accountability

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

The now-wrecked Titan submersible has dominated headlines in the U.S. and internationally for the past two weeks. On Sunday June 18, Stockton Rush, Hamish Harding, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and Shahzada and Suleman Dawood embarked on their journey to see the ruins of the RMS Titanic. By the following day, the submersible had lost contact with its surface-level guide ship, setting off a frenzy of rescue efforts by international governments and private actors alike. On Thursday, June 22, after four days of unsuccessful searching, debris from the Titan was found and its five passengers were officially pronounced dead. 

Media coverage throughout the period was equally as frenzied. During the search effort, outlets offered daily updates on the complexity and costs of the rescue mission, testimonials from survivors of similar incidents, and even gamed out scenarios of how the passengers could be saved or killed

Once the expedition’s tragic end was confirmed, however, the scope of coverage broadened. Op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post lamented the callousness with which some on social media reacted to the passengers’ suffering. Meanwhile, writers in the The American Prospect and The New Republic critiqued coverage of the event altogether, questioning whether it was more deserving of attention than a deadly shipwreck of several hundred migrant refugees that occurred days earlier.

While these questions of public reaction and whose tragedy gets covered are definitely worth exploring — the latter much more so than the former, in my opinion — one aspect of this issue that has gone under-discussed is how reporters initially brushed off safety concerns surrounding the voyage.

Rush and his company had enjoyed plenty of coverage in the mainstream media prior to this disaster — little human-interest features about the novelty of seeing the Titanic, with plenty of beautiful undersea B-roll, as one would expect. Yet, one would have been hard pressed to find reporting that took seriously Rush’s questionable approach to constructing his deep-sea craft. 

Last November, “CBS News Sunday Morning” did a segment on OceanGate’s touring business. When reporter David Pogue was informed that the Titan had “not been approved or certified by any regulatory body” he lightheartedly replied “where do I sign?” Pogue even went so far as to describe components of the submersible as “improvised” with a sense of “MacGyver[ed] jerryrig-ness.” Rush pushed back, asserting that the most important parts of the craft, like the pressure vessel, were sound. However, Pogue didn’t even interview other submersible experts to offer an outside perspective, leaving Rush as the sole authority on the Titan’s safety. 

These clearly questionable design decisions — like the use of a video game remote controller to pilot the craft — were characterized as quirks rather than flaws. As such, Rush is depicted as an eccentric entrepreneur that thinks outside of the box, rather than someone who may have needlessly endangered his own customers’ lives. 

In two separate media hits, Rush himself even acknowledged that he had “broken some rules”, namely around the materials used to construct the Titan. Yet, while these admissions were made in 2017 and 2021 respectively, they were never mentioned in the CBS segment, and evidently never prompted any legal or other skepticism. Nor were they discussed in a September 2022 piece in The New York Times heralding OceanGate for “highlight[ing] that the world for wealthy tourists not only extends to space, but also the deep sea.” It was only after tragedy befell the Titan that reporters began to critically engage Rush’s history of ignoring safety concerns. Certainly these safety concerns became more newsworthy once the sub went missing. But if one is giving free airtime to a novelty businessman whose product could — and did — lead to people’s deaths, isn’t one obliged to do a bit of due diligence?

Unfortunately, such a coverage cycle is all too common, especially in the business press, where wealthy entrepreneurs benefit from a level of deference rarely afforded to poor and working class individuals. Their claims of innovation — in addition to being taken at face value as inherently positive — are rarely challenged, if not actively promoted.

After all, what exactly was Rush’s “innovation”? He had the creative idea of ignoring existing rules and norms in his field and treating hard-earned knowledge about safe submersible design as red tape to be brushed aside with his bootstrapping entrepreneurial ego. These tragic deaths show why this was unethical, but it also was not creative, insightful, novel…not innovative. Seeing what others have said you should not do and saying “I will do that anyway” is not inherently impressive, it’s just the act of ignoring norms — in Rush’s case, clearly without realizing why those norms were there to begin with. But the business press still heaps praise on these kinds of so-called innovators. Indeed, it seems the only thing one needs to do to be labeled a genius by economics reporters is to say you are one. (And to have money.)

Credulity concerning “innovation” is no longer limited to the center and right. Consider prominent center-left figures like Ezra Klein advocating for “supply-side progressivism” that incorporates anti-regulatory critiques, both where they might well apply (NIMBYism in housing) and where they seem dangerous (natural gas pipelines). When considering issues that affect all of our lives, the public needs to be sure that self-described innovators do not receive excessive deference just by virtue of being self-described innovators. Given everything from Travis Kalanick’s claims about self-driving Ubers to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, how confident can we be about the environmental and economic claims made by buzzy young businesspeople whose creations haven’t been independently vetted by actual scientists and experts, much less government authorities? We’re no scientists (and neither are Kalanick or Holmes), but we do think that “innovation” of their sort gets far too much deference from people in power.

A prime example of this sort of credulous reporting is Forbes annual “30 Under 30” list of “600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, leaders, and stars,” across 20 different industries. To take a step back, does anyone really think that every single year there are 30 brand-new, incredibly important young people with brand-new, incredibly important new companies? Genius is, by definition, rare. Genius which is specifically organized into an investor-friendly corporate vehicle is rarer still. The status symbol of joining the 30 under 30, and the expectations it sets, perhaps have contributed to why this list, while well-intentioned, has become an unfortunately frequent predictor of the next major white-collar criminal. 

The most recent alumna of this Forbes-to-prison pipeline is Charlie Javice, who has been charged by the DOJ for “falsely and dramatically inflating the number of customers of her company [Frank, a student financial aid fintech]” in order to facilitate its acquisition by JPMorgan Chase. Sam Bankman-Fried, Caroline Ellison, and Martin Shkreli were also former Forbes honorees who have, or at least are likely to, face prison time for their business practices. 

The insistence on venerating individuals who’ve amassed wealth through thinking outside the box regularly ignores any discussion of why those proverbial boundaries (read: appropriate regulations) exist in the first place. This often results in frequent, and uncritical, coverage of those like Rush until disaster strikes. It is only then, after implosion — be that physical, financial, or both — that outlets take seriously the writing on the wall that has often been apparent from the start. This lasts about one news cycle, and then it’s on to some other buzzy new business from which you too might get rich quick.

Hindsight will always be more informative than foresight, especially in the wake of catastrophe, but journalists can and should do a better job of covering potential purveyors of the “next big thing.” I’m not asking for clairvoyance, neither am I wanting or expecting reporters to suddenly adopt an antagonistic stance to the idea of innovation. Rather, I am arguing for a media ecosystem that is less easily blinded by entrepreneurial self-aggrandizing.

Hack WatchMedia Accountability

More articles by Julian Scoffield

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