The End of Integrity: Tech/Game Journalism in the Age of Trump

During the back half of 2014, Blake Harris was riding high. His then recently released book, Console Wars, was racking up acclaim from gamers and selling well. Making the situation even better was that it had been announced Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg developed interest in turning the book into a film, and they had already secured the rights. Rounding the year out with goodness was that even websites such as Polygon had included Blake in their list of ‘admirable gaming people of 2014’.

As he described it during our private conversations leading into this piece, 2014 was quite literally “life-changing,” and publishing a book was a “dream come true.” A dream that turned surreal after Seth Rogan entered the picture. Sadly, this high wouldn’t last, because as he began work on his next book, it all turned into a momentary nightmare when the subject of his multi-year efforts to detail the rise of Oculus became an enemy to the press due to where his political allegiances lay.

Yet, as is so often the case, the press’ vindictiveness didn’t just engulf Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift, no, it boiled over and burned Blake Harris when he tried to set the record straight and point out areas where the media had lied, or misrepresented information.

During the time of Console Wars’ release, Harris became acquaintances with a number of journalists, and considered himself on “friendly” terms with many of them. He chatted with people from Business Insider, Polygon, IGN, Forbes, Ars Technica, Kotaku, and elsewhere. Even those who didn’t find much enjoyment in his book found themselves sharing pleasantries with the author. Though, those friendly terms quickly turned sour when on April 29th, 2017, Harris published an article on UploadVR titled: “This is How Fake News Happens: The Reporting of Palmer Luckey and Nimble America.

Almost right away he was unfollowed and blocked by a handful of journos on Twitter, and within just 30 minutes of the piece being live, folks began to call him a “nazi,” “white supremacist,” and a “stupid fucking liar.” Not much later, people he had been all too happy to chat with began to suggest he was “normalizing white supremacy,” on top of calling him a “hack.” A reaction that was totally unwarranted given Harris was only trying to correct a misleading media narrative after they overplayed their hand on the topic of Palmer Luckey and Nimble America.

So what exactly is Nimble America, and what does it have to do with Palmer Luckey? Well as Blake Harris goes over in his newest book, A History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality, in 2016 Palmer Luckey gave a just under $10,000 donation to a new political action committee that had been created by a moderator of the popular Donald Trump subreddit, /r/The_Donald.

The goal of the PAC was to put billboards up across America in support of Trump heading into the 2016 election in an effort to prove that “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.” Ultimately they would only ever place one. A lone billboard that showed a caricaturized picture of Hillary Clinton with the words “Too big to jail.”

Before long, due to some questionable actions by a journalist at The Daily Beast, it came out that Palmer had helped fund the single billboard and in an article titled: “Palmer Luckey: The Facebook Billionaire Secretly Funding Trump’s Meme Machine,” they took him to task.

I recommend reading Harris’ most recent book to understand the bigger picture as I’m going to gloss over it here, but the gist is that The Daily Beast’s article seriously misrepresented the truth of the matter. They go so far as to try and frame moderators of /r/The_Donald as anti-semitic white supremacists due to the popularity of the Pepe the frog meme. In my private conversations with the author, he labeled The Daily Beast’s reporting as “Unethical, deceitful, disingenuous, and worst of all: wrong.”

The Daily Beast’s article broke the dam, and what followed was a deluge of hit pieces from a startlingly high number of media outlets, all aimed at taking down Palmer Luckey. Most distressing was just how false many of these pieces actually were. Ars Technica ran the headline “Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey is funding Trump’s racist meme machine”; never mind that the single billboard wasn’t racist, and that Palmer was not to blame for the countless memes that were already on the net, let alone responsible for funding them. The Verge wrote “Palmer Luckey is funding Donald Trump’s internet trolls with his Oculus money.” Meanwhile over at The Atlantic they published the headline “Why a Silicon Valley Founder Is Funding a Factory for Trump Memes.”

None of that was the end of it as countless sites ran articles with similar headlines, all repeating the same rhetoric. This is what led Blake Harris to eventually write his article on Upload Vr. Within it, he broke down the narrative and explained why it was false. To quote his own article:

Now, whether or not you like Donald Trump, and whether or not you find the above billboard tasteful, it is important to note the following:

  • Nimble America was not responsible for creating or spreading any memes online.
  • Nimble America’s goal was to take meme-like images [like the billboard above] and put them into the real world (via billboards, t-shirts and stickers).
  • There is no evidence—nor, based on my research, do I see any reason to believe—that this organization promoted any sort of racist, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic or white supremacist agenda. Neither is there any evidence of Nimble America engaging in any sort of trolling, harassing or “astroturfing.”
  • Milo Yiannopoulos had no affiliation with Nimble America other than to endorse the cause and, in his capacity as a moderator of the The_Donald subreddit, verify that there was indeed a wealthy backer [Luckey] who had donated to the organization [a little less than $10,000].

In one of my own questions to Harris throughout the past few weeks, I asked him about the friendships that ended with journalists after he published his piece in defense of Palmer, to which his reply was quick to denounce that it was written to ‘defend’ him. As he explained it to me, “I don’t really think of [the article] as a defense of Palmer so much as a black-and-white overview of how what was reported did not match what actually happened. That may seem like a petty or super-semantic difference, but I think it’s an important distinction: I mean when you have The Daily Beast reporting that Palmer “Secretly Funded Trump’s Meme Machine” or The Verge reporting that “Palmer Luckey is Funding Donald Trump’s Internet Trolls with his Oculus Money” it just doesn’t feel right to use the word “defense” when pointing out that—based on the information that was publicly available to all those journalists—there wasn’t any evidence that Palmer funded internet trolls or financed the creation of any internet memes.”

He would go on to elaborate that he thought his article would be acknowledged and debated by tech journalists. He was under the assumption that they would take the new information and admit that they had simply fallen into the hysteria of the news cycle. One example he cited for why he thought this way was an Atlantic article that had run a few days prior titled “Video Games are Better Without Stories.” This piece sparked a debate, and journalists from a bevy of sites chimed in with their opinion. A reaction which caused Blake to think “If that many journalists thought it newsworthy to publicly echo or refute a gaming-related claim in The Atlantic then surely they’d have much to say about being challenged over the serious claims they had made about Palmer Luckey, right?”

The answer of course was no. What instead happened was Blake Harris almost immediately lost all the good will that had been afforded to him since the release of Console Wars. Various journalists from Waypoint and Polygon unfollowed him on social media, while others began to speak ill of him.

While I’ve been asked not to name names, I was afforded the opportunity to see private and public conversations he had with various people from a variety of websites, and others within the game industry. While throughout this piece I have named the websites that certain folks work for, Harris wants to stress that these individuals do not speak for the entirety of the sites themselves. As he expressed in his own words, “I just want to make sure it’s clear nonetheless: just because I’ve had disappointing experiences with journalists at certain outlets does not make me think negatively of the entire outlet; at the end of the day, these are just individuals and shouldn’t be perceived as representative of the entire entity.”

In the months following the piece, a game’s writer accused Harris on Twitter of normalizing white supremacy/nationalism. An accusation that found new ground after Harris correctly proclaimed that the okay hand gesture wasn’t a white supremacy symbol. It’s a gesture used in the modern political climate to ‘troll’ people (For more information about that, you can read my own article about the subject here). This notion wasn’t accepted, and Harris was accused of normalizing the behavior so he wouldn’t lose access to certain people. A sentiment that was matched when a game journalist from Polygon jumped in to repeat the same rhetoric.

While speaking privately to a game journalist shortly after the Upload VR piece had been published, they suggested that they took issue with the article due to “the fact that the argument rests on the idea that Trump himself isn’t promoting white supremacy.” They would continue “I think attacking one of the most qualified presidential candidates in history without actually having an argument is just trolling, and the fact one of the organizers of a targeted terrorism campaign against women in gaming endured it in a pretty horrific subreddit kind of shows that Milo is at least tangentially involved. It’s gross on a lot of levels…”

The message didn’t end there however as this person also added a follow up claiming “This is different from just giving a campaign contribution, although the Trump agenda is so horrid on its face that even doing that might be damaging in some way, but the way this played out justified the coverage, and the reaction. Luckey became untouchable for Facebook once it came out, especially since the current climate makes it really hard for developers to trust any company with a figurehead that has ties to Gamergate and is backing a candidate who bragged about sexual assault. If Luckey didn’t leave, it would have been brought [up] in every conversation about the company’s diversity efforts.”

Harris would reply to this with “The premise of your argument seems to be that anyone who supports Trump is wrong. Is that sincerely how you feel, or am I misreading?” To which the Polygon journalist replied with “Right.”

Now regardless of where you stand on President Trump, there is not yet any compelling evidence that he is a white supremacist. It’s also factually incorrect to label Gamergate as a “targeted terrorism campaign against women.” That aside, here was a journalist openly admitting that because Palmer Luckey supported the “wrong” candidate, he essentially deserved to be run out of his company. A rationale that seems to excuse the poor reporting of other journalists at a large number of tech/gaming websites. Reporting mind you, painting Luckey as a bigoted white supremacist troll, even though he has yet to publicly demonstrate any of those ill traits.

Mind-blowingly, the bad reporting was only just beginning.

On June 9, 2017, Engadget published an article titled “Palmer Luckey’s Virtual Border Wall: From Disruption to Dystopia.” Within the piece were claims that were outright false. One such misleading sentence was this:

“So it was no surprise to anyone when Luckey was revealed to be funneling piles of money and lots of energy into pro-Trump (and openly racist) online propaganda mill “Nimble America,” with his silent partner in the venture, Milo Yiannopoulos, and its troll army.”

Again, regardless of where you stand on Trump, the claim that Nimble America was a racist propaganda machine is not just false, it is straight up bullshit. Harris, upon seeing this, decided to set the record straight and reached out to multiple Engadget writers (not the one who wrote the article). One revealing aspect of the conversations is when one of them admitted the original writer of the piece could “be terrible.”

Eventually Blake was able to contact someone with more power at the website and they agreed to have a phone conversation, in what would ultimately be a call that lasted for roughly ten minutes. Blake claims the person on the other end of the line seemed confused, and agreed that “one billboard does not make a troll army.” This conversation was then followed up by more email exchanges an hour later.

During the email, it was discussed how someone had gone through the piece with the original author, and for clarity’s sake, changes were made.

“While I agree that “openly racist” is potentially overstating the case against Nimble America a bit, we have decided to continue to refer to it as a racist organization. The group stated that it promotes the ideas of “America First” which is an ideal shared by racists and the alt-right…”

What followed were very minor tweaks to the article. Most notably they removed the word “openly” while describing Nimble America as a racist organization, so it read as: “So it was no surprise to anyone when Luckey was revealed to be funneling piles of money and lots of energy into pro-Trump (and racist) online propaganda mill “Nimble America,” with his silent partner in the venture, Milo Yiannopoulos, and its troll army.”

So much for “one billboard does not make a troll army.”

Within this same time period Harris would ultimately uncover something about Facebook that changed the entire dynamic of his then upcoming book. Due to Luckey’s political viewpoints becoming public, his standing at Facebook had quickly dwindled. It became so bad, that as Harris would eventually learn thanks to an admission by Luckey, Mark Zuckerberg coerced him into lying about his preference for president. In an apology letter sent out in 2016, Luckey claimed he was a “libertarian who has publicly supported Ron Paul and Gary Johnson in the past, and I plan on voting for Gary in this election as well.”

As Harris writes in his book, none of that was true, and it was allegedly Zuckerberg who wrote the apology letter for him. Yes, you read that correctly. The CEO of a tech company with billions of users potentially wrote an apology for an employee whom he told to lie about who he planned to vote for.

It’s no secret in gaming and tech that right leaning individuals are lambasted, and often required to keep their opinions to themselves lest they become victim to the hyper-partisan viewpoints of those that surround them, but what Luckey alleges Zuckerberg did is horrible beyond belief.

This is made worse as it was a response to backlash from journalists who bent, or in some cases outright snapped, the truth to create a narrative that would stoke the flames of rage in today’s outrage-baiting clickbait-driven media landscape. A landscape that has become blurred beyond recognition because few are focusing on the truth.

Though it is here that I should pause to mention that Blake Harris speaks highly of Dean Takahashi, who has remained fair, and whom asks tough but good questions of the author; even traveling to a book signing to talk with him. Likewise, he speaks highly of Samuel Claiborne of IGN who has remained “open-minded” and has taken steps to proactively help him correct the record. Lastly, he name dropped Anthony Ha as someone else who he feels worthy of highlighting.

Back to the matter at hand, it shouldn’t matter that Luckey funded a lone billboard, nor should it matter that he supported and voted for Trump. Yet to today’s left leaning journalists, that was all it took to make an enemy of not just him, but fellow journalist and author Blake Harris who simply tried to set the record straight.

Adding another degree of tragedy to this epic dark comedy of failure, is that Harris isn’t even a Trump supporter himself. He voted for Hillary, despises Trump, and, in the acknowledgments of his recent book, thanks Brianna Wu of all people as he considers her a close friend. This is a man who is the complete opposite of Luckey when it comes to political views, and I would imagine the complete opposite of most people reading this website, yet because he has integrity, he fought tooth and nail to get the truth; even if it meant losing people he considered himself friendly with in the process.

Thirty minutes after his Upload VR article went live, a longtime friend and old college roommate texted Harris to say he was ‘embarrassed’ for him, and that it was really sad he’d gone from “a writer with so much promise to a misguided MAGA apologist.” As he would explain it to me, in that moment he wanted to just disappear. A wave of regret washed over him and he wished he could go back to before he had started the book. Thankfully, those feelings were just a momentary instance of depression, and he soon realized why he needed to finish his work; because that’s what journalism is.

“You follow the story where it takes you and never—however tempting it may be—the other way around. You follow leads, you examine evidence, you continue to dig deeper and deeper and you do it to get at the truth; not for the praise you think you deserve; not to try and be everyone’s best friend; but because however fast or partisan or cynical the world has gotten, the truth still matters. It still fucking matters so much. So, so much. So, so much that—from that moment forward—I knew that chasing the truth was more important than whatever it might cost me and my career.”

Journalism at large may seem likes it’s dying, but at least there’s still a resolute few standing strong in the fight for truth.

Authors note: Special thanks to Blake Harris for sharing all the information presented above to me during the last few weeks of correspondence. If you’d like to support his work, you can purchase his newest book here

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Sophia was a former Niche Gamer contributor.

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