The Tech Press: Screw Them All

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Last week I wrote a post about my current investment policy at TechCrunch, and pointing out already disclosed financial conflicts of interest. Our primary duty to readers, as I’ve said many times, is transparency. To that end we will (as we always have) be extremely careful in disclosing any investments I’ve made in startups or in venture funds. And these interests will be disclosed even when other TechCrunch writers are covering these companies.

In that post I said that there would be a lot of criticism headed our way from our competitors. And that’s exactly what happened. AllThingsD calls me “vaguely icky.” The Atlantic Wire says what I’m doing “lowers the bar for journalistic independence.” And Tom Foremski says “It’s best to have a blanket policy of no investments allowed. That way readers can read the news without having to do all the leg work to figure out if there is any bias.”

So, hold on a minute.

We can argue all day about whether or not my policy is a good one. You’ll have your arguments, I’ll have mine. But the really important thing to remember, as a reader, is that there is no objectivity in journalism. The guys that say they’re objective are just pretending. Everyone is conflicted in different ways, and yet the “rules of journalism” don’t require any sort of transparency or disclosure unless it’s a direct financial conflict. I’m going to have to write a longer post about his yet again.

But when you read a tech blogger call a CEO “tough and misunderstood,” should you know that the CEO in question is social friends with that blogger, and leaks confidential information to her? The answer is yes. But you’ll never know. Or when the same CEO is called incompetent by another blogger who was just turned down by said CEO to speak at his conference. Disclosed? No. Conflicted? Yes.

Like I said, that’s a different post. But in putting this current issue to rest, there are some things I’d like to point out.

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.

Foremski, the other chief whiner, is a real piece of work. Despite railing against my policy, he has his own direct conflicts of interest. The man who said just a week ago how horrible I am for investing in startups has financial interests in a whole slew of tech companies – “Disclosure: Current and past consulting clients and sponsors of Silicon Valley Watcher: Pearltrees, Intel, Tibco Software, Edelman, Infineon Technologies, SAP.”

And he isn’t so good about disclosing these interests. If one of our writers pulled this stunt they’d be fired in a second.

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?

Look, I’m still new to this journalism thing. I treat our readers the same way I’d like to be treated. With full and complete disclosure. I’m really sorry if that upsets the old guard. But the reality is this. The people complaining the most are the people who are the most deeply conflicted. They’re the people who are, at best, vague about their own conflicts of interest. Right and wrong don’t seem to be concepts they worry about too much. Nor do they seem to be overly concerned with hypocrisy or even the basic underlying lack of logic in their rants.

Really, it all came into focus for me this week. A major news publication asked for “my side” after all this complaining. I spent a half hour on the phone with him at his request. And he never wrote. Why? “My editors want to leave Arianna dangling in the wind,” he said, referring to the fact that Arianna Huffington, my boss, was taking heat for this situation. It never occurred to him that he just killed a story because that story might help a competitor (Huffington Post), and how screwed up that was.

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.

Swisher doesn’t get to complain about my investment policy when she is married to a Google executive, and when we can’t figure out whether or not one of her writers owns Facebook stock through her husband. And don’t even get me started on the time her employer, the WSJ, killed a story that was critical of its sister company MySpace, and then denied it. Foremski doesn’t get to tell me my policy is unethical when he has financial conflicts all over the place and seems unconcerned with proper disclosure and transparency. And major media doesn’t get to preach to me about their ethics policies when they kill stories because their editor wants to keep Arianna Huffington squirming.

Before I started TechCrunch I never understood how screwed up this whole news world was. It’s ugly as hell out there, people. These people, the tech press, just disgust me.