Kara Swisher’s ‘Burn Book’: A Scorching Exposé of Tech Titans, Billionaires and Old Media

"Burn Book" is a tech love story/memoir written by journalist Kara Swisher. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

Phil Graham, the late owner of The Washington Post, popularized the adage that news provided the “first rough draft of history.” This, along with being able to speak truth to power, inspired me to pursue journalism. As I set out to cover the dynamic landscape of Silicon Valley, there were a select few reporters who served as my beacon of motivation. Kara Swisher was one such person from whom I tried to learn, trying to understand how she got scoops, built a tremendous network, and created a seemingly future-proof career. So when her memoir “Burn Book” was published, I jumped at the chance, eager to learn about her three-decade journey in media.

It most certainly did not disappoint.

Is ‘Burn Book’ a Revealing Tell-All?

While her name may not carry the same immediate recognition as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey, or Elon Musk, Swisher possesses invaluable insights into tech’s evolution. This book introduces the general public to someone bearing witness on the front lines of innovation. It’s Swisher retelling her life.

If you’re hoping for some damning revelations about Big Tech or a personality, you’ll be disappointed with “Burn Book.” But that’s not the point. The value is reading what happened behind the scenes. “I was there,” Swisher emphasized during an interview with former Meta Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos earlier this month. In a sense, and borrowing a line from “Hamilton,” she found a way to be in the room where things happened.

Throughout this 297-page tome, Swisher effectively recounts a life of struggle and achievement. She shares the work that went into building All Things Digital, her first media company, and facing constant pushback from old media. In addition, we’re treated to stories about her interactions with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, entrepreneurs and investors. In the end, she offers advice to budding journalists, thoughts on the rise of artificial intelligence, and reveals if she still holds any hope for tech.

No-Holds Barred

Right from the beginning, Swisher lets loose on the cult of Silicon Valley. It reads exactly how she speaks in person (maybe it’s one advantage to get the audio version so you can hear her intonations) and that’s a good thing. Her sense of storytelling is captivating and filled with colorful descriptions that make you believe you’re reliving the moments alongside her.

“Burn Book” is described as a “tech love story” but it’s more like a complicated relationship. It starts with Swisher explaining a tip she received on Dec. 10, 2016:

“The crowned heads of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech companies had been summoned to tromp into Manhattan’s Trump Tower and meet the man who had unexpectedly just been elected president and was the antithesis of all they supposedly represented.”

In the first dozen pages, we experience Swisher trying to reconcile what these tech executives are doing, jumping into action to flesh out a story for publication and gaining a glimpse into how she became the person she is today. Unlike journalism of the past, Swisher doesn’t shy away from opining on important issues including human rights, diversity and inclusion, and when founders behave badly.

The myriad of characters highlighted in “Burn Book” are described by Swisher vividly and expressively. News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch, for example, is called “Uncle Satan”, The McLaughlin Group host John McLaughlin was once described as Kubla Khan — though not to his face, Mark Zuckerberg is labeled the “most dangerous man,” and a few male tech personalities are called “man-boys.”

Everything That Can Be Digitized Will Be Digitized

As her narrative continues, she becomes intrigued by tech and the growing reach of the internet. Her frustrations are palpable with the rate legacy media is adapting to this innovation. And it’s amusing to read that her boss at The Washington Post was shocked when she requested to cover tech instead of pursuing the politics beat — the inside track to the top back then.

“In my heart of hearts, even just seeing the tiny flashes of what these techies were making, I couldn’t shake the idea that those who invented and innovated would be the ones who mattered.”

Not long after, she teamed up with the iconic journalist Walt Mossberg, making waves while at the Wall Street Journal. This resulted in the formation of the publication D: All Things Digital and its popular D conference. However, for all her work in elevating the Wall Street Journal brand and producing a successful event — the D conference made $1 million in profit in its first year — there was resentment among her colleagues over Swisher’s perceived freedom.

Old media was very structured and her desire to cover tech and change the media landscape wasn’t meshing well with the traditional dynamics. This plight would follow Swisher throughout the rest of her journey from All Things Digital to Recode, The New York Times, and Vox Media. And with each opportunity, Swisher reinvented her storytelling while dominating the tech journalism landscape.

Calling out the Tech Titans

“Burn Book” is billed as being a tech love story. It’s one many people likely once had of Silicon Valley in which they envisioned innovations in tech being made for the betterment of all. There was nothing wrong with companies making money from their work. However, attitudes have shifted over the years with people outraged over the danger these inventions and platforms are doing to society.

Swisher devotes considerable pages to Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, Jeff Bezos, and Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick. You can read her original reporting for the news, but in “Burn Book,” she guides us through what took place as she interviewed Zuckerberg both on stage at the D conference in 2010 and in the infamous podcast episode where he offered thoughts on Holocaust deniers on Facebook; her experience covering the career of Uber’s CEO; and more.

Yahoo was once one of Swisher’s favorite companies to report on, revealing leaked memos almost immediately after it was disseminated. The joke inside the tech firm was that she hid in the vents — a claim debunked in the book. Nevertheless, Swisher got some remarkable scoops, from revealing CEO Scott Thompson lied about his academic credits, the $1 billion acquisition of Tumblr, and disclosing Yahoo was firing CEO Carol Bartz before the executive knew about it.

The Good Guys in Tech

Not everything in “Burn Book” is critical of tech. Swisher shares more lighthearted moments from her career, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs having a joking moment before their joint appearance on stage at the D Conference. In another anecdote, she addressed an intimate moment with Jobs when they spoke about adoption.

Mark Cuban is included as one of the people Swisher enjoys speaking with, often surprising her with his take and “makes me delve more deeply into issues.”

And finally, there are brief but deepfelt tributes to Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness who died in 2021, and Dave Goldberg, former CEO of SurveyMonkey and the late husband of Sheryl Sandberg. Swisher acknowledges the latter’s death hit her the hardest because of how close the two of them were and also how his passing left a big hole in the Silicon Valley ecosystem:

“Because Dave was exactly the kind of leader that we need more of here and the kind of quiet conscience critical to transforming the community and its people into the better versions of ourselves.”

Advice for Journalists

After sorting through her career, what takeaways are there for those who wish to follow in her footsteps and become a stellar journalist? Be what she calls a “reportrepreneur”:

“I have long maintained that journalists who aren’t business-minded will be subject to the vicissitudes of a market that is shrinking by the second and will not offer the control they need. This is why I embraced the risk-taking part of tech. Now I get to make a healthy living and, more importantly, I do what I want when I want to do it.”

For those who love interviewing, she outlines three goals she has when speaking with a subject: (1) make it a conversation, (2) don’t be afraid to ask the question everyone is thinking, and (3) conduct each discussion as if you were never going to interview that person again.

A Call for Tech to Do Better

“Burn Book” is Swisher’s lament on how the tech industry has changed in the past 30 years. It’s not a comprehensive book because anything that extensive would rival the Harry Potter series in size. She has covered many topics plaguing tech in her past coverage so missing stories from the book are probably cut due to a focus on more relevant discussions.

After reading, you’ll grasp the industry’s transformation from Web 1.0 and 2.0 to the AI era with a depth of color and detail unmatched by any other source.

Ultimately, it appears that this seasoned journalist still harbors optimism for Silicon Valley. Her plea is simple: she hopes venture capitalists and entrepreneurs will mature and play a more constructive role in addressing, rather than exacerbating the world’s problems.

“Burn Book” is part of a burgeoning group of authors I affectionately call the ATD/Recode literati. Many journalists in that space have written stellar books so it’s a testament to the mentorship Swisher and Mossberg have provided those that served under them. Along with “Burn Book,” there’s Kurt Wagner’s “Battle for the Bird,” Mark Bergen’s “Like, Comment, Subscribe,” Jason Del Rey’s “Winner Sells All“, and Mike Issac’s “Super Pumped.”

In short: I loved reading this book. It was entertaining, illustrative and captivating. It’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone interested in learning more about Silicon Valley.

You can buy “Burn Book” now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at your favorite local bookstore.

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