TED and inequality: The real story

Today TED was subject to a story so misleading it would be funny... except it successfully launched an aggressive online campaign against us.

The National Journal alleged we had censored a talk because we considered the issue of inequality "too hot to handle." The story ignited a firestorm of outrage on Reddit, Huffington Post and elsewhere. We were accused of being cowards. We were in the pay of our corporate partners. We were the despicable puppets of the Republican party. 

Here's what actually happened.

At TED this year, an attendee pitched a 3-minute audience talk on inequality. The talk tapped into a really important and timely issue. But it framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan. (The talk is explicitly attacking what he calls an article of faith for Republicans. He criticizes Democrats too, but only for not also attacking this idea more often.) And it included a number of arguments that were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance, such as the apparent ruling out of entreprenurial initiative as a root cause of job creation. The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings - some enthusiastic, others critical.

At TED we post one talk a day on our home page. We're drawing from a pool of 250+ that we record at our own conferences each year and up to 10,000 recorded at the various TEDx events around the world, not to mention our other conference partners. Our policy is to post only talks that are truly special. And we try to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media.

We discussed internally and ultimately told the speaker we did not plan to post. He did not react well. He had hired a PR firm to promote the talk to MoveOn and others, and the PR firm warned us that unless we posted he would go to the press and accuse us of censoring him. We again declined and this time I wrote him and tried gently to explain in detail why I thought his talk was flawed. 

So he forwarded portions of the private emails to a reporter and the National Journal duly bit on the story. And it was picked up by various other outlets.

And a non-story about a talk not being chosen, because we believed we had better ones, somehow got turned into a scandal about censorship. Which is like saying that if I call the New York Times and they turn down my request to publish an op-ed by me, they're censoring me.

For the record, pretty much everyone at TED, including me, worries a great deal about the issue of rising inequality. We've carried talks on it in the past, like this one from Richard Wilkinson. We'd carry more in the future if someone can find a way of framing the issue that is convincing and avoids being needlessly partisan in tone.

Also, for the record, we have never sought advice from any of our advertisers on what we carry editorially. To anyone who knows how TED operates, or who has observed the noncommercial look and feel of the website, the notion that we would is laughable. We only care about one thing: finding the best speakers and the best ideas we can, and sharing them with the world. For free. I've devoted the rest of my life to doing this, and honestly, it's pretty disheartening to have motives and intentions taken to task so viciously by people who simply don't know the facts.

One takeaway for us is that we're considering at some point posting the full archive from future conferences (somewhere away from the home page). Perhaps this would draw the sting from the accusations of censorship. Here, for starters, is the talk concerned. You can judge for yourself...

No doubt it will now, ironically, get stupendous viewing numbers and spark a magnificent debate, and then the conspiracy theorists will say the whole thing was a set-up!

OK... thanks for listening. Over and out.  

[Edit: Had to switch off commenting for a couple days because of a Posterous notification bug that was driving people crazy. They say it's fixed now. If you comment and get notifications you don't want, you should be able to immediately unsubscribe.]

[Edit: One other reporter's take..]