With Labor Day weekend a day away — or for the more fortunate, in full swing — it is only fitting that another controversy erupted before the unofficial end of a summer of salacious scandal.
Michael Arrington, founder and editor of the blog TechCrunch, has announced that he is launching a $20 million venture capital fund, backed in part by owner AOL. The "CrunchFund" will invest in start-ups, including many that his own newsroom writes about.
So far as anyone can tell – the details on this have changed repeatedly — the fund will operate under AOL, but under AOL Ventures rather than the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. Arrington’s position at the company is still somewhat unclear, but the latest reports suggest he remains an AOL employee, just not on the editorial side. However, he remains “founding editor” of Tech Crunch, as well as an “unpaid blogger.”
The truth is always murkier when something inappropriate is happening.
Since TechCrunch is one of the tech world’s foremost news sources, and Arrington is not only its pioneering founder but its scoop master — much like Kara Swisher is at AllThingsD — the phrase conflict of interest doesn’t even begin to describe this.
That is why tech and business writers across the country have been up in arms ever since Thursday's announcement.
The aforementioned Swisher penned a lengthy post that made several good points, but also made a series of nasty personal comments about Arrington. She began by referring to him as “perpetually petulant” and her snipes never got nicer.
But personal disagreements aside, no one seemed too pleased with this move, or with AOL’s lack of clarity on what exactly was going on.
NYU journalism professor and Press Think blogger Jay Rosen tweeted “I know it shouldn't, but it amazes me how AOL can't get the Arrington announcement (and his role with TechCrunch) clear.”
Most prominent media or tech writers weighed in, either through an article or a tweet (yes, even the New York Times’ David Carr) and that is because this underscores the continued erosion of classical journalistic integrity and ethics.
AOL has said Arrington will not exert influence over TechCrunch’s editorial side, which is hard to imagine if he continues to contribute to the site in any way.
Even if he has no editorial role at all, AOL Huff Post’s initial refusal or inability to see that it would be a huge problem if Arrington retained an editorial presence says it all. The 12-hour about face was remarkable.
AOL did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Whether or not a conflict of interest in this specific instance remains, the whole ordeal reinforces that the Internet is rendering the old rules of journalism irrelevant. Depending on how you look at it, this process may be complete or ongoing, swift or gradual, but it is happening.
This is not exactly breaking news, nor is it meant to suggest that the record of print newspapers is immaculate in this regard either. Still, it must be pointed out.
This is the continued story of a changing news landscape, one in which news travels faster, the pressure to get scoops is greater and the fight to protect the bottom line intensifies.
This leads to some great journalism, and far more suspect journalism. It also produces more scandals, and then even more rivals and colleagues reacting in horror or disbelief.
Most days it seems the majority of non-media people could care less about these wonky scandals — hacking the phone of a celebrity or a murdered teen is far more provocative, not to mention the appeal of Kim Kardashian’s wedding! — but this speaks to a more fundamental question of interests.
Regulating privacy is important, but hacking does less to undermine the credibility of a journalist than a significant conflict of interest does.
The problem of special interests is obviously not unique to journalism. Does anyone wonder why the political system is gridlocked?
At least the uproar surrounding Arrington’s move evinces that some people still care. Or maybe the naysayers are upset they didn’t think of it first. Or they just like to complain.
Whatever it is, any time journalistic ethics get debated should provide some solace to those who still do care.