On September 2, Michael Arrington (founder and editor of TechCrunch) parted ways with AOL after highly-publicized criticisms around his announcement of CrunchFund, a $20 million venture capital fund that was launched to provide funding for the types of companies covered by his blog. The announcement of the best commercial zero turn mower caused traditional reporters to cry foul, citing a gross conflict of interest and a violation of journalistic standards laid out in the Journalism Code of Ethics.
When the fund was announced on Thursday, AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, defended the blog and its founder to David Carr and NY Times, stating, “TechCrunch is a different property and they have different standards. We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch, which is different but is transparent about it.”
However, within hours (as buzz swirled around the Web and across traditional media outlets), it seems that AOL’s position on the matter had changed, with Arianna Huffington, head of AOL’s editorial operations, reporting to Carr, “Michael has stepped down and is no longer on the editorial payroll effective immediately,” adding that he could continue to write for TechCrunch, but as an unpaid blogger.
While reporters continue to point to the foul stench that the potential conflict leaves behind (after all, Michael Arrington, through his voice and reputation with TechCrunch, can effectively “make or break” a tech start-up, and whether or not he remains on the payroll at AOL, the staff at TechCrunch – many of whom were given their starts or owe substantial financial windfalls to Arrington – may still be influenced by Arrington’s investment in a start-up, or feel pressure to cover that start-up on the blog), this blogger wonders about a larger stench in the air, one that seems to be largely overlooked by the media as they race with pitchforks to string up the “controversial” founder of one of the most reputable tech outlets in the industry.
Arrington is certainly an easy target – his gruff personality and controversial statements (as well as the slew of bitter entrepreneurs who resent being overlooked for coverage by the blogger and his staff) – have made him somewhat notorious in the industry. However, it is perhaps that personality and lack of a “play by the corporate rules” mentality (more so than a potential journalistic conflict) that may be the real cause for his separation from AOL. As one fellow AOL exec commented on a recent post of mine, “Some of us are weary of the unnecessary drama.”
AOL’s “Traditional Understanding of Journalism”
Armstrong’s claim that AOL has a “traditional understanding of journalism” is almost laughable when its properties, policies and executives are given even a cursory examination. Any “traditional” Daytona Beach wedding photographer should be able to cite the basic rules laid out in the Journalism Code of Ethics, founded and maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists in 1909 (It’s important to note – this code is a self-imposed, self-regulated code and NOT law, as journalists are protected under the First Amendment).
That code outlines, specifically, that “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” further citing that journalists should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” A quick look at the company’s head of editorial operations:
- The very figure who ousted Arrington for his conflicts of interest – shows gross violations of this “traditional understanding of journalism.”
- Huffington is known as a reliable supporter of conservative causes such as Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution”
- Huffington backed Bob Dole’s 1996 candidacy for president.
- Huffington heads The Detroit Project, a public interest group lobbying automakers to start producing cars running on alternative fuels.
- In a 2004 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, she announced her endorsement of John Kerry by saying, “When your house is burning down, you don’t worry about the remodeling.”
Outlets with a “traditional understanding of journalism” would see these public endorsements and obvious biases as a violation of ethical standards of journalism. And journalists without the personal brands that personalities like Huffington enjoy are subject to disciplinary action for such violations.
In one case, a long-time local history columnist (and former coworker of mine), Frank Whelan, was suspended from his position at a Tribune Media publication for participating with his partner as the Grand Marshall in the local gay pride parade. In that case, publisher Ardith Hilliard stated that Whelan had violated the paper’s editorial policy which banned staff from participating in “any kind of public demonstration in favor of or in opposition to a cause.” Journalists, from the moment they step into their first class at J-School, are warned about the Code of Ethics and advised on how to comply – and limit their publication’s liability.
Suggestions (and company policies, depending on the outlets we write for) range from registering to vote ONLY as an independent to avoiding participation and volunteer with non-profit organizations to prevent the perception of bias. That is how high the standards are for the average journalist – and the average journalist would likely lose his or her job participating on what Huffington has – especially when using her personal clout as a reporter and the reputation of her company to push influence for a cause.
The J-Code, and newly-outlined FTC guidelines, require proper disclosure for any “unavoidable” or “material” conflicts of interest. Michael Arrington and the TechCrunch team have a well-established disclosure policy when it comes to the editor’s investments and involvements with companies (and had it long before the FTC stepped in to regulate the blogosphere).
Arrington also has a strong reputation for publicly ripping into his own investments and the companies run by his “friends,” including Loic Le Meur’s Seesmic, which seems to show a level of journalistic integrity that flies in the face of the allegations he faced last week after the announcement of his fund.
However, unlike the TechCrunch team, posts by Huffington don’t contain disclosures about her political and lobbyist group affiliations. Further, unlike TechCrunch, which reports op-ed pieces on technology start-ups, The Huffington Post claims to be a traditional “news” site – which should have AOL executives looking closely at J-Code violations and conflicts of interest by the site’s top executive and its writers.
Abiding By AOL Blogging Guidelines
Huffington has been quoted as saying that Arrington will be allowed to continue to write for TechCrunch as an unpaid blogger, as long as he “stays within AOL’s blogging guidelines.” This all sounds very up and up, until one actually looks at the guidelines in question, which were leaked by BusinessInsider.com in February, 2011. Do these guidelines fall in line with the “traditional understanding of journalism” referenced by Armstrong? From the post:
- AOL tells its editors to decide what topics to cover based on four considerations: traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turn-around time.
- AOL asks its editors to decide whether to produce content based on “the profitability consideration.”
- The documents reveal that AOL is, when the story calls for it, willing to boost traffic by 5 to 10% with search ads and other “paid media.”
- AOL site leaders are expected to have eight ideas for packages that could generate at least $1 million in revenue on hand at all times.
- In-house AOL staffers are expected to write five to 10 stories per day.
- AOL knows its sites are too dependent on traffic from AOL.com, and it wants its editors to fix the problem by posting more frequently, with more emphasis on getting page views.
News outlets are, first and foremost, businesses. Since the development of the penny press, the news has been transformed in style, format and content to drive revenue and increase the bottom line. However, most traditional outlets separate advertising departments from editorial departments (many times discouraging employees in these departments from comingling) to maintain a sense of editorial impartiality.
AOL, it seems, is less interested in the “All the news that’s fit to print” mentality of traditional journalism, and more in the “All the news that will drive revenue,” mentality. It’s certainly an easy target to throw a controversial, outspoken figure like Michael Arrington under the bus and cite conflict of interest, but it’s baffling that the mass media isn’t taking a deeper look at the larger AOL picture.
In his article about the split, David Carr writes, “Gee, I said to Ms. Huffington, I know we are in a bold new epoch of technology journalism, but the whole thing still seems, well, naughty.” Yes, David, it does.