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Silicon Valley and at least some corners of Washington, D.C., will be buzzing Thursday morning over an exhaustive, embarrassing, and damning report in The New York Times about Facebook. The article details the California company’s combative, deceptive, and otherwise sharp-elbowed response to the swirling controversies over false news and other abuses on its powerful platform. (Facebook says the story has some inaccuracies.)
For all its rich details and deep reporting by a five-journalist team, there’s a certain dog-bites-man-quality to the article. A giant corporation, at the apex of its wealth, power, and adulation in the eyes of its users, the news media, and investors, reacts badly to a crisis. It runs every play in the crisis-management playbook—delay, conceal, lobby, fund bipartisan attacks on competitors, self-righteously deny wrongdoing—but one.
That would be candor.
Faced with the knowledge that Facebook had been duped, Facebook angrily stuck its head in the sand. Then it tried, unsuccessfully, to deflect attention away from itself. The best companies humbly acknowledge mistakes as quickly as possible in the hopes of forgiveness.
That’s what’s different about Facebook, which in turn is a proxy for Silicon Valley—a place where humility is in short supply. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg killed his own meat and proudly took long paternity leaves. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg started a corporate feminist movement. Neither could conceive that their company, technologically daring on the one hand (Zuckerberg’s domain) and slickly attentive to its public image on the other (Sandberg’s), could possibly be responsible for gross injustices against democracy.
Silicon Valley companies like to pretend they’re special in some sort of moral, ethical, or existential way. It turns out they’re just companies.