The story of the video of a major debate on U.S. immigrant tech worker policies that earlier this week looked like it was being kept under wraps now looks like the story of a video that never was – due to some astonishingly unenterprising journalism from the Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s main newspaper and therefore a leading source of information on the technology industry.
As RealityChek regulars know, the story began with a June 1 debate in Silicon Valley centering on the controversial H1B immigrant visas. Squaring off were the Valley’s new Democratic Member of Congress, Ro Khanna and Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis. (A tech entrepreneur took part in the event, too, but in a minor way.)
Technology companies claim that the H1B and similar programs are crucial to accessing the world’s best talent. Critics charge that they’ve overwhelmingly been used to cut their costs by replacing native-born U.S. workers with much cheaper foreign counterparts. Khanna favors relatively modest changes to H1B policies; Matloff believes major surgery is needed.
Matloff, who’s become a valued friend of mine, has written that the event marked the first time a debate has been held between an elected official and a researcher on the topic, a major event in that sense. (Khanna has not disagreed.) Matloff also noted that a videographer from the Mercury News was present and apparently recording the proceedings.
Yet the Mercury News failed to cover the debate and never posted a recording on its website. Matloff asked a reporter on the paper to find out why, and was told that a recording existed, but that “it was essentially scrapped as a standalone report, but there’s apparently a possibility that parts of it will be used in coverage of Rep. Khanna. Not sure the reason(s) for this…” Matloff then speculated that the paper failed to make the video public because Khanna performed poorly – leading the Mercury News, which editorially has sided with the tech industry on H1B and related issues, to consign it to non-event status.
I emphatically agreed that the video’s import deserved to see the light of day, and last Sunday urged the Mercury News to post it both to perform a public service on a major technology policy area and to affirm its journalistic chops. Gratifyingly, the post and follow-up tweets prompted Khanna readily to agree, and to call openly for the video’s posting. (For the record, he contends that it was Matloff who was highly ineffective.)
Two days later, Matloff and I got answers from Mercury News editor Neil Chase. In the version he sent Matloff, he wrote, “We had a photographer there who captured some still photos and some video for use with a future story, but we didn’t attend with the intention of taping the full debate and did not.”
Based on information Matloff had shared with me and my own journalistic experience, yesterday, I sent Chase the following email. I had hoped to get a response from him in time to prepare this post, but no such luck yet:
Many thanks for your comment to my blog and my apologies for the short delay in responding.
I must confess, though, that the response leaves me somewhat mystified on two counts.
First, the statement that the Mercury News videographer did not “record the whole event” doesn’t track with an email from one of your reporters, Ethan Baron, to Matloff. Baron said, in response to the latter’s query re the video’s availability, “it looks like the video was essentially scrapped as a standalone report, but there’s apparently a possibility that parts of it will be used in coverage of Rep. Khanna.” Granted he’s conveying some uncertainty here. But Matloff also has written in his blog that “the videographer seemed to be taping continuously.” In addition, Matloff noted that “the video cam [was] on a high tripod, seemingly much for an occasional clip.”
Similarly, it sounds odd, as your email indicates, to give the videographer the responsibility for choosing the portions of the debate to be shot. Was this the case? If so, what were the criteria used to determine what was captured? Or were they simply taken to get a bit of file footage of each participant, irrespective of what they were saying at the time?
Second, I certainly don’t mean to tell you how to do your job. But as someone with a journalistic background, I’m hard pressed to understand the paper’s seemingly offhand attitude toward this event. After all, the H1B issue has been described as crucial by the dominant industry in the region served by the Mercury News, and it’s surely of comparable importance to all your tech worker subscribers. The new Congressman from your area, Rep. Khanna, has been touted by several national publications as a rising star in the Democratic party, and possibly all of national politics. To his credit, he was willing to appear in public with an outspoken, prominent critic of the H1B and related programs – a rare event at the very least, according to Matloff. And of course, H1B and other immigration issues have become even greater controversies nationwide since the last presidential campaign heated up. So from all appearances, the leading paper of Silicon Valley would be expected to view the debate was highly newsworthy from the get-go. And yet it seems from your email that no coverage was ever planned.
Now it’s clear that some fur was flying at the event, and that Rep. Khanna and Matloff are begun feuding in public over what was said and over their qualifications to claim expert status on the issue. I.e., because of this aftermath, their debate has become by any reasonable definition even more newsworthy.
So I respectfully make the two following requests:
1. Would you check whatever video archive you have – including whatever the videographer might possess – to determine conclusively whether a full recording of the debate is indeed available? (If not, I would hope to find out how it was disposed of, and why.)
2. Would you assign a reporter to cover this emerging Khanna-Matloff dispute — in which a local Congressman who’s increasingly prominent nationally has publicly gone after a critic on an issue that’s one of his top legislative priorities, and a major national concern? The Mercury News would get an excellent scoop, and perform a valuable public service at the same time.
Thanks for your consideration, and I look forward to your reply.
As per the email, I’m still hoping that the Mercury News finds a recording and shares it, and that it reports on the differences between Khanna and Matloff, which cut to the heart of the debate on H1B and broader questions and arguments concerning the future of the domestic workforce in an age of rapid innovation. At a time when Fake News abounds, it would amount for welcome coverage of some real news.