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TED: Even More Elitist Than We Thought

TED curator Chris Anderson seemed most concerned that "business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted" by some remarks about income inequality.

We've long heard  complaints that TED is elitist. The annual conference in California  costs $7,500 to attend and is nearly impossible to get into, even for those who can afford the price tag; it is widely considered to be "unofficially invite-only."

Still, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't gone down a  TED video rabbit hole at least once. Snobby as they may be, those TED folks sure know how to pull together some fascinating speakers and share their talks online in a compelling way. There are some questionable TED talks in the archives, sure, but most of them are solid, and some are great (for example,  the scientist who studied her own stroke).

So it is disappointing, if not terribly surprising, to hear that TED organizers originally chose not to share online what sounds like an important talk on income inequality, after initially expressing enthusiasm for the talk. The  National Journal had the story:

TED organizers invited a multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer – the first nonfamily investor in – to give a speech on March 1 at their TED University conference. Inequality was the topic – specifically, Hanauer’s contention that the middle class, and not wealthy innovators like himself, are America’s true “job creators”....

TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. “I want to put this talk out into the world!” one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. 

TED curator Chris Anderson initially called the piece "one of the most politically controversial talks we've ever run" and said "we need to be really careful" when it gets posted online, but he made it sound as if it was still a matter of when, not if. But soon, TED's tune had changed:

In early May Anderson followed up with Hanauer to inform him he’d decided not to post his talk.

National Journal e-mailed Anderson to request an interview about what made a talk on inequality more politically controversial than, for example, contraception or climate change. Anderson, who is traveling abroad, responded with an e-mail statement that appeared to swipe at the popularity of Hanauer’s speech.

"Many of the talks given at the conference or at TED-U are not released,” Anderson wrote. “We only release one a day on and there's a backlog of amazing talks from all over the world. We do not comment publicly on reasons to release or not release [a] talk. It's unfair on the speakers concerned. But we have a general policy to avoid talks that are overtly partisan, and to avoid talks that have received mediocre audience ratings."

As the  Journal points out, Anderson's argument that the talk is too "controversial" or "political" seems pretty bunk, given that TED has promoted plenty of controversial and political talks in the past. And if there was ever a time to promote a talk about income inequality, it seems like it would be now, what with the recent surge in conversations about the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. Anderson's comments make one wonder if he was more concerned about offending his rich donors than anything else.

Later comments by Anderson seem to confirm that suspicion. Anderson wrote Hanauer another letter on May 7, saying he had re-watched Hanauer's talk but still was not interested in posting it online. The long and detailed email, printed in full by the Journal, takes issue with several elements of the talk, including the line "hiring more people is a course of last resort, done if and only if rising consumer demand requires it." "I think a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted by that statement as given," Anderson wrote.

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