TechCrunch is a highly regarded news site that was founded in 2005 and won a reputation for scoops on Silicon Valley dealmaking. AOL bought it last year as one of several big moves by the onetime online powerhouse—moves that included acquiring Huffington Post and installing impresario Arianna Huffington as AOL editorial chief—to reinvent itself as a must-visit emporium of news and comment.
At the time of the deal, reportedly worth $30 million, AOL said it expected TechCrunch’s entrepreneurial founder, Michael Arrington, to stick around for at least three years. Then came word earlier this month that Arrington was starting a venture capital fund, which would sprinkle seed capital on tech startups. Called CrunchFund, it had among its early investors AOL itself, which put up $10 million of an initial $20 million in funding.
Here’s where it gets tacky. Although Arrington would step aside as TechCrunch managing editor, both he and the site would continue to cover projects that the fund would help bankroll.
That is a notable departure, to say the least, from customary journalistic protocol, which demands that reporters steer wide of topics in which they have personal stakes. And so the fat hit the fire. After all, the potential wasn’t just pimping the startups that got the bucks; there’s also a clutch of top-shelf tech sector moneybags that are investing in it too. You have to wonder if TechCrunch would cover them even-handedly, and deny them tender treatment (and sensitive information) in return for their help as partners.
“A giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile,” was the gorgeous description offered by Kara Swisher, a Wall Street Journal veteran and TechCrunch competitor who blogs at All Things Digital. The denouement was messy. Apparently at the insistence of editorial chief Huffington, AOL quickly pulled the plug on Arrington’s continued role in TechCrunch, although a statement suggested he’d be welcome to blog in an unpaid capacity, probably a resistible offer.
What makes this affair worth exploring is that it illuminates a continuing dispute over whether traditional prohibitions on conflict of interest still make sense, and even if they do, whether there’s any practical way to apply them to the growing choir of online voices who claim that by coming clean about their off-stage entanglements they no longer have any obligation to avoid them.
That’s the gospel of the high church of transparency, and its belief in the cleansing power of confession is appealing and increasingly popular. For one thing, the creed acknowledges the complexity of the post-salary world that many of today’s online reporters and commentators work in. Instead of steady employment with a single institution, they rely on a patchwork of paymasters, and over time may find it harder and harder to avoid topics dear to one or more of them. So disclose, and carry on.
Another strength of transparency is that it creates procedures to enable talented inside players like Michael Arrington to let us in on their thinking. That may not always be to the good, since there’s still room for trickery. But at least transparency sets ground rules and gives us standards by which to judge if somebody’s out of line.
But other implications are less reassuring. Transparency lets the writer give up on fairness to the subject and palm off to the reader the job of spotting tilt and distortion, usually without enough information to even suspect the many ways in which a work could be tainted. Just because I know you’ve invested in one company, I still won’t recognize all its rivals (which you either slam or ignore, your motives hidden from me), who its acquisition targets are, or which pet projects your fellow investors might be undertaking. That humble disclosure may be a way to, in effect, finagle my consent to a communication that remains, fully and unacceptably, deceitful.
Sure, transparency helps, and where conflicts of interest can’t be avoided disclosure is, as ethicist Louis Day put it, a “moral minimum.” But my fear is that its advent represents a retreat from something that’s close to being a defining value of journalism, which is independence.
Independence doesn’t demand that journalists approach a topic without predisposition or beliefs. But it does insist on a distinction between fair-minded reporting and conclusions honestly arrived at, and work that is produced with one eye on some outside interest.
Paid partisans already vastly outnumber the beleaguered corps of genuine journalists whose job it is to make sense of things for the rest of us. Allowing transparency to replace independence may do little but hasten the steady transformation of the marketplace of ideas into a flea market.