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Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and me: New conflicts, and new opportunities, for the tech press

Changing technology is changing journalism in more ways than we can probably even understand. One of those changes concerns the definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” themselves, the question of who’s permitted to make or contest those definitions, and the other question of whether those lines are fair to draw in the first place.

This is one story about an instance of this argument that’s unusual for at least four reasons:

  • It involves some of the biggest bloggers in tech and in journalism;
  • It happened on Mother’s Day;
  • It happened on Twitter;
  • I started it. And it was an accident.

Arrington and his investments

The focus of this particular argument was Michael Arrington. Arrington was an angel investor in technology startups before he founded TechCrunch, one of the biggest and most influential technology and tech business news sites on the web. For a few years, he was an investor and a publisher too.

In March 2009, in a post titled “The Rules Apply To Everyone,” he announced that he was going to discontinue investments to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Then on April 27 of this year — some time after TechCrunch and then the Huffington Post had been acquired by AOL — he wrote “An Update to My Investment Policy,” announcing that he was investing in companies again, including companies and industries covered by TechCrunch.

Arrington acknowledged that from time to time, this would create conflicts of interest in his coverage, but promised he would disclose those whenever possible. He also wrote: “Other tech press will make hay out of this because they don’t like the fact that we are, simply, a lot better than them.”

The next day, AllThingsD‘s Kara Swisher wrote “Godspeed on That Investing Thing, Yertle–But I Still Have Some Questions for Your Boss, Arianna.”

Swisher wasn’t exactly polite to Arrington — the Yertle the Turtle comparison, and all — and said his post and policy were “vaguely icky.” But the thrust was directed not at Arrington or TechCrunch, but at Arianna Huffington, who is newly ranked above Arrington on AOL’s organizational chart:

Would it surprise you to know that BoomTown doesn’t really care anymore if TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington sidelines as a blogger while he makes investments in tech companies his tech news site covers? ….

[W]hile I kind of understand where Arrington is coming from, what I don’t understand is how this kind of convenient and on-the-fly rule-making can govern a much larger company whose strongly and repeatedly stated goal by Huffington herself is to create quality journalism….

Simply put, does AOL, which is touting itself as a 21st-century media company, need to have 21st-century rules of the road? Or perhaps not so much?

Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism?

These questions are contentious and much-contended. They also often obscure what might be a more meaningful inquiry into what makes for best journalism practices in this new world. How much do writers need to tell readers about themselves? Is a tweet a story? Now that journalists have more means to address each other and each other’s work directly, what’s the most appropriate way to do it?

When professional journalism organizations had a near-monopoly on publishing and broadcasting tools, they were largely able to dictate the codes of the trade among themselves. It’s easy to overstate how homogeneous those were, especially at different points in history. But it’s definitely true that as new publishing tools and new media companies are disrupting established businesses, they’re disrupting those codes, too.

The technology press is arguably at the head of this disruption. Tech blogs and media companies were (and are) among the first and most successful competitors to print and broadcast journalism. Because tech outlets also usually cover media-producing and media-consuming technology, they’re among the most reflective on their own tools.

They have also been the most entrepreneurial, partly mirroring the industries they cover. That’s how TechCrunch works, and also how AllThingsD works. Those outlets both put together big technology conferences. They both work very hard for the bottom line. They’re both 21st-century media companies.

“Screw Them All”

On May 7, Arrington responded to Swisher and other writers who’d questioned his new policy, in a blistering (even for Arrington) post titled “The Tech Press: Screw Them All.” In particular, he called out Swisher, her parent company AllThingsD, and her employee Liz Gannes, accusing them of being equally conflicted and much more evasive about their conflicts:

AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, the chief whiner about our policy, is married to a Google executive. This is disclosed by her, but I certainly don’t see it as any less of a conflict than when I invest in a startup. And yet she whines. One of her writers, Liz Gannes, is married to a Facebook consultant. She covers the company and its competitors regularly. She discloses it as well, but it isn’t clear whether or not her husband has stock in Facebook. That’s something as a reader I’d like to know. And regardless, it’s a huge conflict of interest. I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company. Certain adjectives, for example, might be softened in the hopes of marital harmony….

Why do the people who complain the most about TechCrunch have these vague conflicts of interest themselves? Why aren’t they more forthcoming in their disclosures? How do they justify their hypocrisy, even to themselves? Seriously, how?

Aaaannnd this is where we jump to Twitter.

[Update: I've collected the bulk of the ethics, disclosure, and technology argument as it unraveled on Twitter streams Saturday on Sunday -- the core of this post --in a long thread on Storify. We had it embedded here, but it didn't work equally well on everyone's browser, depending on their setting. Please click the link below, or this story won't make any sense.]

[View the story "Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and Me" on Storify]

Meanwhile, Columbia’s Emily Bell hit on one of the few really good ideas to come out of this whole mess:

[View the story "A new beat: accountability in tech press" on Storify]

Dave Winer — who would go on to discuss the idea in more detail with Jay Rosen — may have put the best coda on the whole affair with his post, “Journalist or not? Wrong question“:

[F]ights over who’s a journalist or not are pointless.

However, there is a line that is not pointless: Are you an insider or a user?

Insiders get access to execs for interviews and background info. Leaks and gossip. Vendor sports. Early versions of products. Embargoed news. Extra oomph on social networks. Favors that will be curtailed or withdrawn if you get too close to telling truths they don’t want told.

All the people participating in the “journalist or not” debate are insiders. They are all compromised. Whether or not they disclose some of these conflicts, none of them disclose the ones that are central to what they will and will not say.

That’s where we’re left — at least, that’s a different version of what everyone seem to be arguing. Are you in, with the compromised? Or are you out, with the truthtellers and true believers?

Image by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

This post was edited on Sunday, May 15, to reflect changes in formatting and to clarify wording.

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  • Scott Rosenberg

     Fascinating work, thanks for being so exhaustive.

    One issue worth thinking about: As an insider and participant Arrington *gets stories* that journalists who practice under more traditional strictures don’t and can’t get. (Iconic instance of this was how Arrington broke the Google-acquires-Youtube story in 2006.) This has changed the game. 

    Seems to me there are now two new models for getting the kinds of insider scoops that drive tech news today: (a) be a participant like Arrington, get access to information others won’t get because you’re a peer of the people making the news, and you make some yourself; or (b) set yourself up as a sort of Wikileaks-type drop for inside info and news that people want to get out but can’t. The latter is, I’d think, where Jay’s opportunity for “accountability tech journalism” lies. Where, for example, could somebody inside Apple with a great story go and be utterly assured that his/her identity would be protected (since Apple gets medieval on anyone who tells tales)? 

  • Tim Carmody

    What I think Winer’s getting at — and this is maybe Arrington’s argument, too — is that the vast majority of tech journalists are insiders and participants to one degree or another. They have sources and relationships with people at companies that drive their stories. Some of them worked for tech companies, or invested in them, or were stock traders, or were involved in the business in some kind of non-journalistic way. 

    In another story I wrote here at Nieman, I looked at how stories were being pushed to technology blogs and other outlets by companies, analysts, PR people, and others with very specific short-term/long-term positions and goals. 

    Reporters, too, have lots of different motivations when writing about companies. There’s obviously an incentive to write stories that attract and retain readers. In some cases, that means trolling, or goosing pageviews. Sometimes journalists want to maintain good relationships with a company that gives them access. And especially in tech, journalists are frequently fans of the products they use and the companies they write about, generally openly so. Again, fans can be critical, but they’re still fans.

    If you were to ask me what the real story is about here, it’s really about media companies trying to figure out new policies that they can articulate for their readers. Arrington’s cycled through a couple of them at TechCrunch when it was an independent company. It is worth asking whether a big media company like AOL can and should have the same policy for all of its writers and editors. AllThingsD is also trying to articulate their policy, which is clearly different. 

    I think the debate about these policies within and between organizations is one of the things that will help readers decide how much credibility a journalist has, based on that complicated calculation of access, track record, various conflicted interests, and the quality of their writing and arguments. 

  • Tim Carmody

    Here is a weird and quite possibly unworkable idea (my favorite kind):

    What if we could establish a handful of different community/industry-developed standards for ethics and disclosure in journalism, like we have different open-source licenses for software and Creative Commons licenses for copyright? 

    That way, there’d be enough variability to suit publishers’/writers’/readers’ choices, but enough standardization that readers could fairly quickly grasp what rules any given publication was operating under?

    Also, people could argue about the best rules to govern any particular standard, and partisans could argue about which standard was better for which kind of journalism, and so forth. Everybody wins! 

    (NB: not a perfectly serious proposal, just a little bit serious)

  • Amos Zeeberg

    I agree that your two models are good ways to go about tech journalism, Scott, but I suspect there’s at least one more successful model: retaining independence, rejecting access, and focusing on some  combination of smart analysis and reporting information other people are ignoring — information not procured by sucking up to big players. A few examples:
    - Knight-Ridder’s Washington Bureau in run-up to Iraq war [as pointed out by Winer] — dug up info from alternative sources
    - Harry McCracken’s Technologizer — smart and open-minded tech analysis
    - Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sportsguy” — a phenomenally popular sports columnist who made a conscious and public decision to reject access to athletes. He watches from afar, talks with his buddies, and thinks a lot like his readers [but is funnier and a better writer]. 

  • Dylan Tweney

    Wow! I think this debate overspilled the banks of Twitter.

    But — as Scott said — thank you for being so exhaustive.

    I think it boils down to “as a reader, whom do you trust?” In some cases that might be an insider. Sometimes an outsider. Debates about who is or isn’t a journalist make me tired, and I suspect most readers don’t care. What they want to know is: What’s going on? What do I need to know? Why does this matter? And is this thing I’m reading reliable?

    Also, Winer’s very smart, but his “insiders” vs “users” distinction is also bullshit. He is the ultimate insider, and in fact that’s the entire M.O. of his brand of blogging. Nobody would read Winer if he weren’t a successful developer with a lot of access to interesting people in the software industry.

  • Tim Carmody

    What’s funny about the Winer piece is that either Swisher or Arrington could take it as agreeing or arguing with them. It all depends on what you think you’re inside or outside of. 

    I think both Arrington and Swisher could meaningfully say “I’m not one of THEM, I’m one of YOU” to their readers, and both groups of readers would largely agree with them and be comforted by that. Ditto Winer.

    And actually, MG Siegler wrote a piece called “Us and Them” that pretty much made this exact argument. So, you know, whatever.

  • Dylan Tweney

    I like Siegler’s piece — it’s well-put. And MG Siegler is, no question, doing some of the best tech journalism out there today, so what he says carries extra weight for me. Ditto for Kara Swisher.”Whatever” — you’re picking up on Kara’s verbal tics now Tim!

  • Tim Carmody

    The “whatever” was actually self-conscious! Oh, trying to be cute.

    I love reading MG Siegler. And I appreciate that he’s backing up his boss. But I think this is absolutely wrong. 

  • Perry Gaskill

    Normally, the whole Swisher-Arrington exchange could be considered a large tempest in a tiny teapot except for a nut graf in Arrington’s “Screw them All” post:

    “I have little hope for this industry until the last of the old guard have finally been put down. They do NOT control the news. They do NOT control opinion. They do NOT get to say who gets to write content and who doesn’t. And they do NOT get to rant about their ethics when they constantly fight against simple transparency.”

    The problem with that, at least it seems to me, is not the over-the-top rhetoric and implied threat, but instead a logical fallacy in the sense of presenting a false dichotomy.

    As if journalism follows some sort of George Lucas film script in which Queen Arianna leads a plucky rebel alliance with a cast of characters who include Skywalker Arrington, Yoda Rosen, and Jar Jar Jarvis. And before the end of the third reel, you must choose Jedi righteousness or risk being a minion of the MSM darkside.

    For what it’s worth, one of the best definitions of journalism I’ve seen is an oblique observation by David Sullivan, a newspaper copy editor. Awhile back, Sullivan wrote that during the normal day-to-day course of things, it had been his experience that there were two kinds of work coming across the copydesk. There was that from diggers who were good at connecting the dots, and that from stylists who could tell a good story. Sullivan said he saw his job as mostly a function of trying to help diggers be better writers, and stylists be better reporters.

    I point this out not as some sort of process dogma, but instead as a suggestive wind guage when trying to determine the relative worth of things media whether they are MSM or otherwise. Such as this:

    Last July, Dave Winer, considered by many to be the godfather of blogging, did a post on Scripting News about a fire in lower Manhattan.

    “I was working on some code in my apartment, was thinking about going out, and looked outside and the sky was black.” Winer wrote. “At first I thought it was another thunderstorm. I got drenched this morning. But then when I got up to look I saw it was a fire. I got out my camera and took a picture, uploaded it to Flickr, and tweeted a link to the photo… This is a new kind of reporting. Everyone has digital cameras and everyone is networked.”

    One of the commenters on the post pointed out at the time that although it was interesting that Winer had reported the fact of the fire, nowhere had he provided any information in terms of what the fire was actually about. The kind of things, say, it might be useful to learn by picking up the phone and calling the fire department.

  • Mark Zorro

    How Arrington’s response speaks to me is that in today’s blitzkrieg world of information flow the conflict of interest question is no different to the what is corruption? question.  The blitzkrieg world makes it easier to chase low hanging fruit such as visible corruption, but what has always been difficult is to notice the hidden dimension of invisible corruption.  For me that is one of the source river points of journalism where one begins to seek the nature of first principles, so that the overall aim is how a citizen such as me is to learn how to notice quality rivers of information?

    That IMHO requires an “awakening within” which should be the maturing responsibility of a thoughtful citizen.  This maturation may develop through personal information due diligence or even learning how to detoxify or inoculate oneself from information pollution – which today rest on the choices of attention which we the attendee or so called “reader” own.  What is the point of having “trusted voices” if we betray the trust we internally develop and mature in order to be more aware rather than simply informed citizens?

    These first principles are brought back into visibility by people like Bill Kovach who focus on quality of journalism.  As receiver of quality journalism my question “what is corruption?” is brought back to essential principles such as what shapes the quality of my life?  That way one is no longer digging for dirt but refining the gold and in the process casting away the dirt.  A citizen is an amalgam of various professional attitudes of which journalism is one of many.

    IMHO that essence of quality is first and foremost my own problem if I am responsible for my own inquiry (and not other readers or even people who want to be noted as “journalists”).  In order to solve that problem I need to sift through polemics and try to ascertain principles that govern the way I live – not as a product called “the reader” but a promise called the “citizen”.  Solving that problem is difficult work because it means that I must learn to to stop point fingers at others and instead study principles that will serve to strengthen me as an individual, without igniting my own ego in the process, because people still worship things and continue to put ideas on pedestals rather than harvest them as a practical wisdom.

    I don’t think that the underlying principles of journalism have changed that much, just as I believe that at the core of our humanity compared to the core of humanity thousands of years ago, has not fundamentally transformed into some immortal form or new thing.  What has changed in our humanity are awareness of uncertainty and recognizing that truth itself is a disruption, especially when we begin to focus on what is true within our own selves rather than merely demand an opinion what others think is false in the world.

    For me to answer what is corruption is to stand in the mirror and take a hard look and learn what it is that corrupts oneself. In that awakening, one can return to a world chockablock of information and opinion and what not.

    From this new vantage point where as a citizen I am most aware and alive, I can then realize that at the heart of the word “Journalism”, there once was the word “journal”, but that the difference between walled media of the past and flowing media of today is that what is changed isn’t the journal (that was the “same as it ever was” – borrowing a line from “Talking Heads”) but the journey. 

    If journalists forget that citizens in the information age now participate in new forms of journey and not just a journal about the journey of journalism, then the invisible corruption isn’t about conflicts of interest, but recognizing how to enfuse citizens on how best they embark on their own uncertain journey into that emerging horizon called the future, rather than fight or bicker over who was right or wrong in the journals of the past.

    If at least one “professional” busy defining what journalism is or isn’t, stops to notice that citizenship today is a personal journey, then the kind of journalism which will be a catalyst to that kind of future; will emerge as a natural consequence of grassroots human transformation and not necessarily old school arguments and logic.  In that regard I want to transcend even my own opinions, and eliminate that which corrupts me from the thoughtfulness for my own life journey, a personal journey and private journey that should not for sale, but which informs journalism.


  • Jay Rosen

    I like it, Tim. I think you are on the right track there.   

    Re: “a weird and quite possibly unworkable idea (my favorite kind)…”  You have the same tastes in ideas that I do.

  • Tim Carmody

    I agree with what it would have been nice if Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Never doubt that a weird and quite possibly unworkable idea can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”

  • Tim Carmody

    This reminds me a little bit of the ethics code Jim Lehrer articulated</a? in a National Press Club speech (and which Robert MacNeil read on PBS NewsHour the other day):

    Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously. And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.What I really don’t like about Arrington’s “The Tech Press: Screw Them All” post is that he blew right past this. He assumed Swisher’s story was a personal attack on him, an attempt to censor or police his journalism. Instead of saying, “geez, let me approach writing about these other people and their organizations like I wish somebody would write about me,” he went after them in exactly the way he said he didn’t want to be treated. He ignored Swisher’s disclosure (which was both contained in and linked to the post he cited) and threw up some dust about Liz Gannes (who doesn’t have any Facebook stock, BTW) for no reason other than to muddy the waters. He got so upset that the story was about him — when really, I don’t think it ever was — that he looked for somebody else to make the story about. Understandable? Yes. Lame? Very. I didn’t have anything to say about this, really, until this tu quoque nonsense. I got pulled into it by accident. But after this and the whole Facebook PR-smashing of Google debacle, I think articulating clear policies, making them fair to readers and employees, and holding to them are really important. A lot more important than I thought I did before. Because sometimes it’s when people say they’re disclosing things that they’re actually blowing the most smoke.

  • Tom Foremski

    It seems that we already figured out the answer to the question: Is it OK for a reporter to invest in companies that they write about?

    There’s nothing “new” about the new media except for it’s distribution channels. Why do we need to learn the same lessons in ethics again?

    Not all conflicts of interest are equal to each other. Where do we draw the line? I think the line is still where it was before this latest “screw everyone” post of Mr Arrington’s. And he’s stepped far over it. I bet you won’t see Techcrunch or other reporters following suit because they know it will change the relationship of trust that is core to their work.

  • Dylan Tweney

    ” Sullivan said he saw his job as mostly a function of trying to help diggers be better writers, and stylists be better reporters”

    Best definition of journalistic editing I’ve seen.

  • Tim Carmody

    I like it too. I can also say that a certain Dylan Tweney helped show me where it was worth digging, and what stories were worth telling (with style or without). 

  • Tim Carmody

    The thing about the distribution channels is that even if you and I and everyone else here and every newspaper and television and radio company  and standards body get together and decide on a proper code of ethics for reporters’ investments, that doesn’t stop TechCrunch or anyone else from writing about what they want to write about.

    That is so long as TechCrunch was a completely independent company, which post-AOL sale it is not. So Arrington’s decisions and AOL’s subsequent decisions to ratify them have consequences for the whole company, even if the decision is just that Michael Arrington gets to have a hall pass to do things that every other reporter working for AOL doesn’t get to do. 

    Which is an issue of fairness to those reporters, and a fair issue to press AOL and Arianna Huffington on.

    Now, it’s also important to note that there are other reporters and analysts  who invest in companies they write about. You see this more often in financial/stock market blogs, where you’ll usually see a brief disclosure like “At the time of this writing, Reporter XYZ was long APPL.” It’s not just a tech press issue. And Arrington, who’s writing an insider-y blog that’s as much tech business as it is tech news, has some other models to look at and point to.

    The point about other TechCrunch reporters and the “relationship of trust that is core to their work” is a good one, and it isn’t just about reporters and their readers. It’s also about reporters and their sources. 

    Let’s say you’re a startup and you go to Michael Arrington. What’s your motivation here? Do you want to get your company written about? Do you want advice? Or do you want to get him in on it? And let’s say you know that every other startup is trying to figure out the same thing. Does that make you more or less likely to feed info to him or to any other reporters for TechCrunch? 

    Why give a reporter inside info if his/her boss might be using it to help a company put you out of business? It’s a real problem.

  • Anonymous

     I was and am a tech journalist. You utterly miss the differences between (and connections among) disclosure, profiting from investments made with inside knowledge, and the veracity of what’s published.
    And there is no room in this profession for your implicit assumption that everyone is a little bit inside and/or conflicted. This sort of thing can be, and has been, controlled by strongly enforced ethical codes. It is the lack of such codes and enforcement which stain the tech press today. Sliding scale codes aren’t codes at all, either.
    You are either serious about writing unbiased stories or you aren’t. The reader deserves the unvarnished truth in a news story. If your writing is colored by what’s in your portfolio (or your bed), you should leave–or be ejected from–journalism. 
    With respect to Swisher (whom I have never met) while companies like Dow Jones can dictate non-conflict investment policies to their employees, they can’t march into the bedroom. Regarding that, Swisher and her spouse have made arrangements that pretty clearly not only discommode Swisher, but make it almost painfully clear that she is compulsive about non-conflict.After reading your column, I wonder if you have the ethical judgement to be at the Nieman Lab, or whether you have simply given up on the profession as a profession.

  • Tim Carmody

    OldScientist: If you expand the Storify posts above (especially “Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and Me”) or read my comments below, I think my stance on conflicts of interest, disclosure policies, and more are pretty obvious. 
    I agree that Swisher (whom I also have never met) has been extraordinarily transparent about her personal finances, and I was motivated to participate in the debate and later write this story because I thought that her treatment by Arrington and others was unfair, particularly when she was also writing a story that was about AOL and its wider policies, not really about Arrington or TechCrunch. 

    I tried to avoid reiterating most of these comments in the body of the story here at Nieman, simply because I didn’t want to repeat myself or beat my points into the ground. But please do me the benefit of looking at the whole of what I’ve said explicitly, not what you think I’ve implied or am implying.

  • Mark Zorro

    I would like to present ethics as a part of an ever adapting triangle, where the point of the triangle is black and white and absolute and the base of the triangle is the gray area where there isn’t one right answer and it is these base ethics which are the tough ethical calls because what one person deems as ethical, another may call unethical – it is an area where spin media and reframing are born.  It is also an area where the relationship between the ethical and the legal is open to challenge and even confrontation.

    Inverse that triangle and we arrive also at a horizontal cut of the simplistic, the sophisticated and the surreal and that in part is governed by how we each see the world, i.e. in a short term vs long term, in part or in whole, in absolute or in abstract.  That means that one size of ethics does not fit all and the imposition of vertical segments only adds more layers of confusion.  To view this triangle as a horizontal means that we match thinking between human beings first and then the constituency or profession they belong.

    The point end of the triangle is the destination point for anyone who profess reason as a scientific method approach, the base end of the triangle is where the poets reside and where people McLuhan offers ways of making sense of a fuzzy world where there is no top or bottom, only different ways of seeing :

    Marshall McLuhan

    This brings me to the subsets of ethical teaching and thought leadership.  For me there is no citizen plumber or a citizen doctor or citizen soccer star, there are simply professionals who profess excellence through their professions and citizens who choose their profession.  It leads me to schools of journalism and the changing nature of the profession and the resulting colour of the profession as it touches other professions. 

    One would think that the thought leaders of modern day media would emanate from the schools of journalism, but it seems that they emanated from first mover advantage.  It isn’t thought leadership that is important, it is our capacity and capability to think, and that the chief nutrient of that thinking today is media, education and the physical fitness of emerging society.

    Which leads me to one colour in the myriad of colours that make up professional practice, the colour of journalism as it looks in the hue and tone of our particular century.  Then it is a case of whose practice is hardened and unbending and those who are most open to the flexible and adaptive demands of an accelerating future.  This leads me directly into visions of journalism that span 20 to 50 years hence rather than immediate change. 

    For me education changes when it seen through the eyes of a student, healthcare changes when it is seen through the eyes of a patient and journalism changes when it seen through the eyes of a citizen.   Ethical students, ethical patients and ethical citizens stem from the same horizontal, they are not vertical slices in which there is a specific ethical boundary.  More so on any given day the ethical human being is not 100% ethical and on any given day may miss the mark – hence the idiom “to err is human, to forgive is divine”.

    Standards make sense when they are biological i.e. they continuously evolve and that leads us into a more organic view of media organization, rather than media mechanization.  

    Thought leadership has to find its way into the roots of the schools of journalism and mature through professional growth, and such thought leadership needs first to win over the horizontal that connects thoughtful possibility across all dimensions.  In our eagerness we may confuse the base of the triangle with mass thought – for it is the pointy end of the triangle where the masses like to mass, and that explains why societies are built on mythologies and the glue of a society isn’t anywhere near as accurate as the history that joins it.

    Why do we keep our language simple?  Why do we seek black and white answers?  Why do we favour a one liner world compared to thoughtfulness?  Why do value certainty and clarity over uncertainty and experimentation?  Why do we need to identify things like a judge rather than experiment like a scientist?

    At the end of the day reality dictates journalism standards rather than mechanical models of journalism, which means that we must first put something out and then see how it emerges rather than simply trying to make facts fit with our own theory.  Every profession is facing this challenge, every profession is seeing a particular genie come out of the bottle and so why so few people risk “weird and quite possibly unworkable ideas”, but that is really my point here – you did.  You did not remain like many others at the scene of the accident. We all fear original thinking, it creates new map of the world, where only the brave tend to go and the apparently foolish continue to explore.


  • Jay Rosen

    “There’s nothing ‘new’ about the new media except for its distribution channels.”


    So the low barrier to entry isn’t new. Edit this page: not new. Dollars for dimes on the revenue side isn’t new. Blogging and commenting systems, permitting authorship to the audience, these aren’t new! Video and audio recording, plus video and audio editing within reach of every user: not new. News production freed from the heavy iron of print or the capital intensive requirements of “broadcast quality” … that isn’t new. Crowdsourcing isn’t new. Sources who can easily become publishers and don’t speak through reporters: always been the case, nothing new! The system that makes Wikipedia work: that’s nothing new. The asymmetrical notification system known as Twitter: nothing new. Mobile: not new.

    Only the distribution system made possible by the Internet is new.

    Your statement isn’t anti-hype. It’s anti-thought. If what you meant to say is new media, for all its disruptions, doesn’t overturn ancient wisdom about ethics and trust (which is true) then you picked an extremely odd way of phrasing it.

    Here’s a post I wrote about the general issue:

  • Ken Fisher

    I must say that I think this is a fantastic idea. Imagine if it worked like this:

    All sites publish their internal policy, adopted from a handful of options a la Creative Commons. Said sites agree to also disclose, on the story level, any time a conflict of interest comes into play. 

    In the case of a senior editor’s investing activity, those disclosures would be made:
    1. Any time he writes on a company that he invests in.
    2. Any time he writes on a company that competes with a company he invests in.
    3. Any time he writes on a company that partners with a company he invests in.
    4. Any time he writes on a company that partners with a company his investments compete with.
    5. Any time he writes on VC activity competitive with his own. 
    6. Any time his subordinates touch on any of the above (because if carried out, they’d all know his CoI, and he is the boss).

    Note that the above would not be full disclosure, because obviously said Editor and his subordinates cannot publish a disclaimer when they, e.g., chose not to cover anything mentioned above (what is not said is easily as important as what is said). It’s a great start though.

  • Ken Fisher

    It’s a shame that so many ad hominem attacks have been deployed in this debate while core issues have been ignored. 

    For instance, I am still wondering when someone is going to discuss the differences between being an traditional investor and a VC.  Traditional investing, for instance, is heavily regulated. How information is shared, and with whom, is a big deal. Most investors in traditional instruments have nothing approaching “insider information” or even “non-public information.” The world of the VC is, of course, nearly opposite. Insider, non-public information is the norm. 

    I keep looking for someone to educate me on this topic, but alas I’ve not stumbled across it yet. 

    Disclosure: after my “event” I also looked seriously into becoming an angel investor, but decided against it because it seemed incompatible with my job. 

  • Ken Fisher

    I can’t speak for Tom, but I read him as arguing that the qualitative nature of the ethical issues have not changed. Or, to put it another way: that the reasoning behind such injunctions is unaffected by the distribution methods. 

    The problem, of course, is that the real question is “unaffected” to whom. Joe Reader? Joe Editor? The “profession”? “Truth” with a capital T? 

    I am reminded of hisotriography, which grapples with similar questions of interestedness, bias, positionality, and rhetoric. Of course, historians are rarely dealing with insider information or even materials whose contents will effect markets. Still, there is endless debate over the question, even if there is a prevailing orthodoxy.  

  • Tim Carmody

    At least some — not all, but some — of the ethics policies of traditional media have been driven by their formats and business models. 

    For instance, mainstream newspapers developed widely followed policies of separating editorial decisions from advertising decisions. Why? Because they were in a medium that was largely supported by advertising. Fundamental ethical policy of an organization, and it’s a function of a medium and business decision.

    Shift the medium to a format where advertising is significantly less of a factor — let’s say public television — and the entire range of ethical questions change. Now it becomes about government interference, not just through overt censorship, but defunding the organization, etc. 

    And that is only within the field of people who would call themselves and be recognized by others as professional journalists. The internet makes it possible for a huge range of individuals and organizations, professional and amateur, to report and editorialize on news in every sector. 

    Stock analysts, software companies, sole-proprietor entrepreneurs are all going to blog, and they’re all going to attract audiences. If it becomes an argument over codes observed by professional journalists, then these people will simply say “then I am not a journalist” and continue to write anyways, as is their right to do so. 

    If it’s an evolving conversation in which plenty of people — and Arrington seems to be plenty concerned about conflict, and ethics, and disclosure, and creating policies that work for his organization — can participate, then we might have a chance at hashing out what we can agree on, or at least what we know.

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  • Tom Foremski

    Yes, the core work of journalism has not changed, but the distribution and the formats, etc, have changed tremendously.

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  • Kara Swisher


    One correction to a well-done piece: The impetus for Arrington’s turnaround post on investing recently was timed the day after I sent a detailed email to AOL’s Tim Armstong and Arianna Huffington asking a long list of questions about his new investments I noticed he had started doing again, which was counter to his policy at that moment. I got no response, but his new policy (yes, I am going to invest now, even though I said I was not going to before) statement appeared the next day as if out of nowhere. It was not, as I assume AOL told him about my inquiry and asked for a response.

    That is why I wrote my post the next day, which outlined that and mostly took AOL to task for making policies on investing that they then immediately violate (As I also wrote, Arrington’s behavior was no surprise to anyone following him over the years). 

    AOL never got back to me on anything, even after Arrington’s attack on my wife, Liz Gannes’ husband and several others and despite clear and exhaustive disclosure and efforts to make sure the personal conflicts we have were minimized as much as possible. That piece was like throwing sand to the eyes in a fight rather than addressing the clear financial conflict.

    At least that is my humble opinion.


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