The defense that Michael Arrington and TechCrunch have mounted against charges that the tech-news site has violated ethical norms comes down to: "Trust me."
But of course, that won't cut it. As with laws, ethics rules exist because people can't be trusted to always police themselves. Even if most of us adhere to the law, there will always be some who don't. We can't predict who will and who won't police themselves, or who will do so in some instances but not others. We've seen what happens on Wall Street when there are no rules governing certain kinds of behavior, and when the rules that are in place are lightly enforced. People go hog-wild.
In journalism, a basic ethical rule is that conflicts of interest are to be avoided. Reporters covering General Electric shouldn't own stock in G.E. or in its competitors. Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, is launching a $20 million venture-capital fund called CrunchFund to invest in many of the companies the site covers. This is by definition a conflict. It's not like this is an arguable point, though Arrington and some of his writers have done their best jiu jitsu to avoid trying to argue it.
Going into this week, the situation was unclear. Arrington was reported to be out as editor of the site.
On Tuesday afternoon, though, Arrington cleared things up somewhat, when he publicly issued a pair of options for AOL, lest he walk away from TechCrunch altogether. The company could either grant the site "unfettered editorial independence and a blanket right to editorial self determination" or sell it back to him and other original shareholders. He didn't mention AOL's reported $10 million investment in CrunchFund and what part that might play in his yearning for independence.
At this writing, AOL has not issued an answer to this ultimatum. My guess is they'll wave goodbye to Arrington, but who knows.
Arrington says the site always provides "disclosure" when it covers companies where there is a conflict between revealing all the pertinent facts about a company and Arrington's or a TechCrunch writer's investment in that company. But this comes nowhere near solving the problem. "Disclosure" simply says, "this blog post may be little more than an advertisement for the subject company." In other words, it says "don't bother reading this if you want all the facts." This is true even if the writer has tried his or her best to include all the facts and to be fair. Because no matter what, the conflict is still there.
David Carr, the New York Times' media critic, on Sunday wrote that "...the idea of a news site that covers every aspect of nascent tech companies sharing a brand name and founder with a venture capital firm financing these same companies seems almost comically over the line."
"Disclosure" doesn't solve this problem. For one thing, "disclosure" doesn't answer the question of which companies aren't being covered, or are getting negative coverage because they compete with companies Arrington might have a stake in, or because they have crossed Arrington in some other way. Carr's takedown offers some evidence that this has happened, but of course we can't know how routine it is. "Disclosure" also doesn't tell us which negative facts are being left out in posts about companies in which Arrington invests. All it tells us is that the journalism is tainted.
If the head of the EPA invested in coal and oil industries, would we be OK with that as long as he or she disclosed those investments? True, journalists aren't regulators. But readers still rely on them to be honest brokers -- that is, to provide information, analysis and opinion that is untainted by outside interests and are informed, to the greatest extent possible, by the facts and the writer's honest appraisal of those facts.
Arrington tries to skirt this problem by declaring that he is "not a journalist." He's trying to have it both ways. Of course he's a journalist, at least in a de facto sense -- he runs a news site. If he's not a journalist, then what is he? And why should we read him?
That last question is a big one for me, since I cover the tech business. TechCrunch offers a lot of great analysis, and it often breaks news. On the other hand, it runs some of the worst-written, most juvenile stuff you can find this side of a YouTube comments section. I look at the site nearly every day, because there's often something worth reading. But because so much of what is there is so pure in its awfulness, I hesitate to dig in too deeply. I think the badness comes from the fact that the site, while presenting itself as a provider of journalism, isn't run with journalistic motives at its core, which is now becoming painfully evident. If the mission were clear -- to offer the best information and analysis possible, honestly derived, and hope it sells -- TechCrunch would probably be a lot better than it is.
Whether TechCrunch, or any particular post on TechCrunch, is worth reading seems secondary to Jeff Jarvis, the perpetually annoyed media critic and champion of everything, whether or not it makes sense, that he perceives as opposed to traditional journalism. Jarvis writes that by launching his fund, Arrington is merely "returning to his roots" because he "started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor."
That may be, but it quickly became a "journalistic venture," employing journalists (of widely varied talents) and drawing readers because of its reputation as a smart observer of the tech scene. That's why Arrington -- the not-journalist who demands "unfettered editorial independence" -- had previously vowed not to invest in companies that the site covers. Now he's going back on that. Still, Jarvis writes: "Neither church nor state, [Arrington is] not trying to be a journalist. He's trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper."
This kind of addled, confusing, contradictory, semantic morass is a direct product of TechCrunch trying to fulfill several missions that are directly opposed to each other. Is Arrington trying to "get information [presumably, to help himself]" to "promote himself as an investor" or to "cover startups?" Because you can't do all those things at once and retain credibility when it comes to the "cover" part. "Cover" connotes journalism. You're either a journalist or you're not. And if you are, there are some basic ethical rules that you have to adhere to.
The reason readers flock to TechCrunch is to find out what's happening in the startup world. Most of them presumably have little if any interest in Arrington's promotion of himself. If promotion were all he was doing, nobody would read the site. If his real aim is to promote himself, he has done so by pretending to be a journalist, whether he admits it or not. In so doing, he has drawn many thousands of regular readers. What are they to make of the revelation that they were drawn in to TechCrunch mainly for the purpose of furthering the aims of a single investor?
Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.