Some lessons from the MIT Media Lab controversy

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When the news first broke that the MIT Media Lab had a close relationship with deceased billionaire and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, some saw it as a momentary lapse in judgment, and there was widespread support for Media Lab director Joi Ito. But then New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow reported that the Epstein relationship was much deeper than it first appeared — including the fact that Ito got a significant amount of money from Epstein for his own personal investments. Much of the earlier support evaporated, and Ito agreed to resign. And there were other spinoff effects as well: Richard Stallman, a free-software pioneer and veteran MIT professor, also resigned, after being criticized for comments he made on an internal email list that downplayed the impact of Epstein’s sexual abuse.

To explore these and other issues, CJR had a series of one-on-one and roundtable interviews — using its Galley discussion platform — with a number of journalists and other interested observers, including WBUR reporter Max Larkin, Slate writer Justin Peters, Gizmodo editor Adam Clark Estes and Stanford researcher Becca Lewis. We talked about why places like the Media Lab often get a free pass from reporters, and why there’s so much technology writing that focuses on the “hero/genius” trope, where the all-knowing founder gets credit for inventing something amazing, even if the thing they invented either doesn’t work (Theranos) and/or they are terrible people in a variety of ways (Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, etc.).

Larkin said some inside MIT were frustrated that the Epstein donations got so much attention, when the institution also recently accepted money and a visit from Saudi Arabian leader Mohammad bin Salman, who has been implicated in the vicious killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “One Media Lab alum told me she was, on balance, more appalled by MIT’s ties to the late David Koch than by the ties to Epstein,” said Larkin, since the Kochs had done so much to undermine the Institute’s core values with their support of climate change-denying groups. And Larkin also noted that some defenders of the Epstein donations — including Media Lab founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte — believed in what might be called the “transmutation” argument, namely that taking money from bad people and turning it into funding for creative academic pursuits was a positive thing.

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Justin Peters talked in his interview about the piece he wrote for Slate called “The Moral Rot at MIT Media Lab,” in which he looked at the history of the institution and came to the conclusion that a relationship with someone like Epstein wasn’t really out of character for MIT at all — in fact, it was just part of a larger pattern. Peters, the author of a 2016 book called “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet,” said he was initially a big fan of the Media Lab when he was doing a Master’s degree in journalism in 2007. “It was intellectually lively and adventurous in ways that I had never before experienced in academia. They were building things there, as opposed to just constructing theories,” he said. But later, Peters says he came to realize that “I bought into the story that the Lab was selling about itself without stopping to consider the extent to which it *was* a story, and the extent to which the Lab benefited from journalists telling its story in a whiz-bang the-future-is-now manner.”

There’s nothing wrong with an institution like MIT being run as a business or trying to find funding, Peters said, but “there are always, always, always strings attached to that money, and it feels to me like the Media Lab’s leaders chose to disregard those strings, or pretend that they didn’t exist, which made it easier for them to take money from the likes of Jeffrey Epstein.” And Peters talked about how the often fawning coverage of the Media Lab was symptomatic of a larger problem with tech journalism. “It’s my sense that the people who cover tech get into the field as enthusiasts, because they like science and technology and gadgets,” he said. And because they are enthusiasts at heart, “they are susceptible to angles that confirm and bolster their enthusiasm. There are exceptions, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that most tech journalism doesn’t serve as a check on tech’s power. It’s a signal booster.”

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Gizmodo editor Adam Clark Estes admitted that when he was at Harvard, he liked to hang out at the Media Lab, because Harvard was severely lacking in the kind of discussion about the future of media in the early-2000s, while “down the road, there was this very cool building full of fascinating people who were doing forward-thinking things.” Estes said that MIT brand is part of the problem when it comes to reporting on the institution, because it has been involved with so many hugely creative projects such as e-ink, and so technology reporters maybe aren’t as critical as they should be when it introduces something new. “So media outlets like Gizmodo stumble onto a new MIT Media Lab concept or promise, and we’re sometimes dazzled simply by the fact that it comes from the MIT Media Lab, that place we believe is cool without actually investigating what’s making it all possible,” he said. “You could say that tech journalists do the same thing when they write about the latest Instagram feature.”

Stanford researcher Becca Lewis, meanwhile talked about the tendency to see startup founders and CEOs — mostly men — as geniuses or creative visionaries, and how this often blinds us to their flaws, including in some cases the fact that their creations are not even close to being functional. “While there are undoubtedly people with exceptional intelligence and inspiration, the mythology of genius goes beyond that and seems to suggest that people with exceptional intelligence also have some sort of divine quality, as if they are in touch with the supernatural,” said Lewis. “Because of this, it means we also often give geniuses exceptional treatment, and that means genius becomes a form of authority and power.”

Entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are celebrated for their vision, but “over time, it has become clear that, despite each of their intelligence in certain realms, they each have been assisted by luck and privilege in various forms,” Lewis said. And each of them also has questionable and/or disturbing traits as well, whether in their personal lives, their treatment of their employees, or the impact of their companies on the world. “For years, and to a certain extent still, these aspects were ignored or pushed out of sight in media coverage in favor of glowing profiles, often which explicitly labeled each of these men as geniuses,” she said. And the media plays up these aspects for a number of reasons, Lewis says: One is that favorable coverage helps when it comes to getting access to stories, and another is that “it’s simpler to tell the story of a successful individual, rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy, the slow-moving structural forces that help shape technologies, and the people doing the “boring” work behind-the-scenes.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.