Kara Swisher’s Burn Book

Kara Swisher has covered consumer technology as a journalist for decades and has developed a reputation of being tough but fair, and usually smarter than the tech executives she covers. I’ve followed and admired her work for a few decades, ever since she reported on consumer tech for the Wall St. Journal, along with her boss, Walt Mossberg.

Unlike many that cover tech, she understands it well enough to not be intimidated or blindsided or be taken advantage of by the spin that other reporters often fall for. She’s confident enough of her own skills to not be overly deferential or treat tech luminaries as celebrities. Her reporting is often focused on shining a light on some of the unseemly sides of tech, such as the damage social networks have created, the hypocrisy of its leaders, the lack of women representation on boards, and the deceit and lying that occurs in the boardrooms. And she just happens to be one of the best interviewers in journalism today. She also believes that the a reporter is not supposed to just report both sides, but to weigh in with their own opinion to inform the reader of the real facts.

Her new book, Burn Book, that I just completed, is part autobiography and part commentary on how the tech industry has gone off the rails. She both loves technology and its potential for good, but is disappointed with how much it’s gotten wrong and, in particular, how some of the personalities are totally oblivious and even evil. And she doesn’t hold back. She names names, describes incidents, which should embarrass many, but probably won’t, because many are unembarrassable and oblivious to the harm they’re causing. Some of her biggest criticism is reserved for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Elon Musk. She documents her conversations with them that expose some of their troubled beliefs, bizarre behavior, and even stupidity.

Swisher has developed relationships that have given her more insight and direct access than most, including CEOs such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and dozens of others. That’s been helped by her AllThingsD conferences, where for years she and Mossberg brought tech luminaries together for multi-day conferences in front of large business and technology audiences, while at the Wall Street Journal. I’ve attended several, including the one where she and Walt Mossberg brought Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together on stage for the first time.

We also learn what drives her through her own personal story that she shares. She understands how we have a limited time on Earth and, through her own personal tragedies and health scares, is driven to maximize her effectiveness. That led to her and Walt Mossberg leaving the Wall St Journal and starting their own digital media company, Recode. We get a good look at the duplicity and lying of WSJ executives who never appreciated the millions their conferences (AllThingsD) brought in and became jealous of their success. Her dealings with Rupert Murdoch, who she calls Uncle Satan, are just what you’d expect from this despicable person.

In a recent interview Swisher explained why she waited so long to write this book:

“I got asked to write books all the time during those ensuing years. I never really wanted to because I didn’t think the story was over, or finished.

“Then it got perfect because of two things. One, the tech companies got so big during COVID, got so enormous and so powerful. It started to really disturb me because they had no guardrails around them. …The second part was that AGI [artificial general intelligence] had become a thing, and so you can see, we’re at another inflection point. …

“I thought, someone has to tell people what these people were like, historically, and tell the truth. We’re heading into the most important phase. When are we going to take back control? It’s sort of like if I was around during Standard Oil and I knew them before. It was my duty to do that, so that’s why I did.”

We’re lucky she finally decided to write her book. The tech industry is rarely covered objectively, because most reporters don’t understand technology well enough, allowing the industry to spin their own image with little pushback. This book goes a long way to reveal what really goes on. My friends in technology, who have worked at many of the companies she covers, have praised her work and this book because Swisher reveals what bothers them so much about the companies and leaders they work for.

by Phil Baker