Feeling conflicted: tech media’s messy ethics
Michael Arrington started TechCrunch in 2005, and since then he’s been the driving force of the site, successfully building its reputation as a go-to source for tech news. Last fall, AOL acquired TechCrunch, paying between $25 million and $40 million (guesstimates, since AOL never confirmed the amount publicly).
Recently, Arrington went back to his venture-capitalist roots and started CrunchFund, through which he and others can invest in the same kind of startups that TechCrunch writes about. Given the site’s (and therefore Arrington’s) influence in the industry, other tech writers were quick to identify and call out the conflict of interest. Arrington’s response? “I don’t claim to be a journalist,” Arrington told the New York Times. “I hold myself to higher standards of transparency and disclosure.” (Ouch.) Others have come to Arrington’s defense using that same argument: that Arrington never wanted to be a journalist and had started TechCrunch to promote himself as an investor.
Arrington’s and AOL’s reponses were at odds initially: first, the official line, from AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, was that there was no conflict, but later the word was that Arrington would continue contributing to TechCrunch as an unpaid blogger (AOL loves those) while working on CrunchFund. What will become of TechCrunch without Arrington’s editorial oversight is unclear, even to its contributors—at least one of whom is incredibly dissatisfied with AOL’s handling of the situation. And it’s hard to say if removing Arrington as editor will assuage people’s concerns about ties between TechCrunch and CrunchFund. The tech media’s reputation could make it hard for some to see the site as squeaky clean any time soon.
What reputation? Read Brandon Mendelson’s rant on Forbes.com about what he calls the “dirty business” of tech and the people who cover it. He rattles off numerous examples of ethical transgressions, such as bloggers buying stolen goods, writing about companies that employ their spouses, and even making up stories altogether. He mentions TechCrunch’s ownership by AOL as another conflict. After all, Arrington= Arianna + Huffington. Coincidence…? Okay, we’ll leave that alone and move on.
For freelancers, conflicts of interest come in a different form. Take tech writer David Pogue, for example. He writes a regular tech column for the New York Times, but, having built a strong brand as a tech authority, he’s also in demand as a speaker. On multiple occasions he’s run up against the Times‘ ethics policy for journalists, which warns against giving paid advice to PR professionals on how to pitch or accepting “speaking fees or travel expenses from all but educational or other non-profit organizations that do not have lobbying or political activity as a major focus.” Despite this, Pogue continues to work for the Times and other high-profile media outlets.
TechCrunch had to deal with a rogue journalist itself in February 2010, when teen intern Daniel Brusilovsky got caught asking for a MacBook Air in exchange for writing about a startup. According to Arrington, who fired Brusilovsky and removed his posts from TechCrunch, there was at least one other instance where he’d asked for a computer as compensation for coverage. While there were immediate consequences for Brusilovksy, the payola allegations certainly didn’t end his career in tech. His profile on CrunchBase (operated by TechCrunch, naturally) shows he’s still actively involved in tech as a consultant and as CEO/founder of Teens in Tech Lab, an organization that helps young entrepreneurs.
The ethical line-crossing going on in tech media threatens the reputations of the publications and tech comapanies involved, but also those of the writers and editors caught in between. And though the damage to a journalist’s image might not be serious or long-lasting—as evidenced by Pogue, Brusilovsky, and the many tech-industry examples Mendelson names—it’s risky business when your good name is your strongest reference, as it is for many freelancers. Whether you’re covering tech or politics or sports or fashion, the potential for conflicts of interest is always there to some degree, and with fewer and fewer paid gigs to go around, it seems that the line between pleasing one’s publisher and maintaining one’s ethics is harder and harder to walk. In tech, it could be that line is even closer to gone.