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Kara Swisher: Tech's Most Powerful Snoop -- NYMag

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I can see why Kara does not want to be hugged by Tony Conrad in biking gear.

Swisher layers charm and aggression to truth-serum effect. When Tony Conrad tried to embrace her, Swisher squirmed out of his grasp, saying, “I just don’t like being touched by you”; proceeded to flatter him as “a scene-maker” and “very good venture capitalist”; then, for good measure, threw in: “He also dresses like a lesbian, but it’s okay.” (This is a go-to Swisher barb; she told Twitter CEO Dick Costolo he dresses “like Ellen.”) Conrad, who was wearing a quilted vest, appeared to take minimal umbrage. “It’s my biking gear, man,” he said. A few minutes later, unbidden, he was proudly spilling the lucrative specs of his investment in the 3-D-printing company MakerBot. “Oh my God,” Swisher said.


Around a U-shaped table, more than a dozen tech notables enjoying a meal with expensive wine looked up in surprise. They included Kevin Rose, a founder of Digg, and Gary Vaynerchuk, the social-media entrepreneur. Swisher, who was wearing jeans, black sneakers, and a Marmot jacket printed with the name of her startup website, Re/code, gestured toward Conrad, who’d taken a seat near the door, and announced, “He told me the fancy people were here.” Conrad reddened and denied it, but Swisher talked over him and made her way around the table, hugging Rose and insulting blogger turned venture capitalist MG Siegler to his girlfriend: “I don’t like him,” she said. By the time she left 15 minutes later, the guests seemed to have forgotten she wasn’t one of them.

Kara Swisher is tough.

People like talking to Swisher. She’s both direct and playful, and I heard several stories of her personal generosity. She gives good text. “I am a big proponent of being in touch with everyone even when I do not have a story to ask about,” Swisher told me. “Most reporters are so transactional, rather than strategic.” Swisher emceed Sandberg’s fund-raiser for (now-disgraced) Cambodian activist Somaly Mam. She has served as the Valley’s update provider, via video interviews, on Brett Bullington, an investor who suffered a traumatic brain injury. As much as the Valley sees her as a reporter and a conference host, they know her as a connector (and, with the launch of Re/code, as a fellow entrepreneur). In Vanity Fair’s 2012 “New Establishment” portfolio, in a photograph illustrating “The Rise of Women in Silicon Valley,” Swisher was one of six, sitting beside YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki. “People are afraid of her, and they trust her,” Barry Diller says. “That’s not an everyday combination.”

It’s a balancing act that Swisher doesn’t always pull off. She and Andreessen, Netscape creator turned prominent venture capitalist, didn’t speak for several years, because, she says, “some company he was involved with, he thought I was too mean to it.” After the disastrous onstage interview with Zuckerberg, Swisher says, she and Ron Conway, a prominent early-stage investor who’d backed Facebook, “had a big falling out … He thought we were unfair to him, ’cause we made him sweat.” Swisher continues: “Smart people know it’s a longer game, and I’m still going to be here. At least I know the history and context. I’m not going to give them a break, but I’m going to be fair, even if it’s not nice.”

Kara Swisher is respected. 

Because of the fear she instills, or because she’s just not going away, or because of what her admirers would say is her fairness, Swisher has managed to keep professional relationships and even friendships with people she’s annihilated in print. During the unsuccessful CEO-ship of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, her coverage could be sadistic—posts had titles like “Raise the Yangtanic, Again!”—but Yang visited her in the hospital after she suffered a transient ischemic attack, a sort of stroke, last year (as did Al Gore), and it was Yang who suggested she and Mossberg approach Semel to invest in Re/code. Semel himself was hardly an obvious choice, given that when he ran Yahoo, Swisher called him “box-office poison,” among other things. This didn’t stop him from becoming one of Re/code’s two backers (the other is NBC), “which a lot of people thought was hilarious,” Andreessen says, “given how thoroughly she savaged the shit out of him. It’s like PTSD or Stockholm syndrome.”

One of Swisher’s secrets may be her selective discretion. “She knows way more than she ever writes,” Goldberg says, “because she doesn’t have it really carefully confirmed, or because she doesn’t want to write something that’s going to be personally painful to someone but isn’t relevant from a business standpoint.” It was Swisher who was chosen to break the news last year of Sergey Brin’s separation from his wife, Anne Wojcicki, but it was “not something I wanted to do. They called, and at first we said no, but then they made a good point that there was a lot of stock involved.” (Swisher assigned it to another reporter.) Even Yahoo’s Mayer, who doesn’t speak to Swisher, has been a beneficiary of her restraint. When Mayer was two hours late to a dinner with advertisers because she’d overslept a few weeks ago, Swisher says she declined to write about it “unless it was in the context of a larger and well-reported piece on her struggles with advertisers,” because it would be “carrying water for her enemies.”

Kara and Alexia:

Self-flagellation was a recurring theme, even though it would be silly to expect the national-security story of the decade to break in a California business publication. Swisher and fellow panelist Alexia Tsotsis, the co-editor of TechCrunch, spoke of the non-investigative nature of the bulk of their coverage—fundings, job changes, new product features. Tsotsis was especially abject, suggesting that even if she’d received the Edward Snowden documents, she probably “would have succumbed to the pressure of the Obama administration now”; TechCrunch “is just a cheerleader,” she said, and “a lot of tech media is sort of in the pockets of the people we cover … We’re inviting them to our parties. We might be dating some of them. We are right in the middle, in the thick, of the tech industry.” (Tsotsis dates a partner at General Catalyst, a venture-capital firm.) She noted that TechCrunch was entrepreneur-friendly from its inception and said she stays up nights worrying about sources getting fired: “There’s a part of me that’s like: No, don’t leak this to us!

“I never say that,” Swisher said.

“That’s why you’re better than us,” Tsotsis said sweetly.

About Marissa Mayer:

Swisher dates Mayer’s antipathy to her to an incident six years ago when she teased then–Valleywag editor Owen Thomas about not receiving an invitation to a Mayer-hosted Sex and the City movie-premiere party. “She somehow figured out that I forwarded the invitation to him,” Swisher says. “So for some reason she’s got it in her head that I leak to Valleywag all the time. I mean, honestly, the stuff I know about people, if I was their source, it would be a much better blog.”

Swisher insists, in any case, that the animosity isn’t mutual. “She’s one of these CEOs who likes to be lauded,” Swisher says. “Personally, I think she’s remarkable. She’s really accomplished and smart, but she’s not perfect, and she wants to look perfect.”

Kara's father died young:

Swisher has always treated the world as a thing to be confronted without apology. Even when she was a toddler, her mother had named her Tempesta. When she was 5, her 34-year-old father, an anaesthesiologist, died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and until Swisher reached that age, she was convinced that she was going to die young. “There’s a theory, and a great book,” Swisher says, “about how kids whose parents die can be very high-functioning people, because the worst thing happened to them and they got over it.” Swisher’s brothers are a doctor and lawyer. “We work like dogs,” Swisher says.