The New York Times’ David Carr Is Wrong About TechCrunch, But It’s Not His Fault

There should be a word for an op-ed that is so ambiguous that all sides are able to use it to support their argument. A “failure” perhaps.

When I wrote my post criticizing Tim Armstrong and Mike Arrington’s handling of the CrunchFund launch, I thought I’d made my point pretty clear. My point being that, while there was no suggestion that TechCrunch would write favourable editorial about CrunchFund companies, there would still be a damaging perception to the contrary.

But then, in today’s New York Times, David Carr (no relation) wrote a piece entitled “A Tech Blogger Who Leaps Over the Line” in which he accused Mike of a variety of ethical violations, and then quoted me as follows…

‘One of the sharpest critiques of this conflation came from Paul Carr, who happens to write for TechCrunch (and is no relation to me). He savaged Mr. Armstrong for fumbling the announcement and sacrificing TechCrunch’s editorial credibility, and said he was worried that “investors will gain influence over how CrunchFund-backed companies are covered on TechCrunch.”’

No. No. No.

I have a huge amount of respect for David Carr. He’s one of the good guys in media criticism and 9.5 times out of 10, he gets it right. This was not one of those times. Here’s what I actually wrote in the post…

“The investors in the fund know they’re on to a good thing — by investing in the ‘CrunchFund’ they get to at the very least piggyback on TechCrunch’s reputation to get deal-flow. At best, if it turns out we are as ethically flawed as our critics would like to think, those investors will gain influence over how CrunchFund-backed companies are covered on TechCrunch.”

The key phrase there was “if it turns out we are as ethically flawed as our critics would like to think”. My suggestion, of course, being that we’re not. But just in case that was unclear, I later added…

“Again, TechCrunch writers have no involvement with the fund, and Mike has always been most critical of the companies he’s closest to. But the important thing is that there’s a perception of risk in not taking money from the fund. And there’s a perception that taking investment from the fund will result in positive coverage. The fact that neither is true is not the point.”

In fact, there were a whole bunch of other errors in Carr’s piece, including describing Robert Scoble as a VC and using incorrect dates to imply that Mike encouraged TechCrunch writers to plug companies in which he’d invested without disclosing the fact. For much of today, Mike and those who support him have been demanding corrections — as well they might.

In particular, Mike is delighting in the irony of a New York Times writer attacking TechCrunch for a lack of disclosure when the Times regularly covers the Boston Red Sox without disclosing that they have a minority stake in the team. One might also note that the Times and the Huffington Post Media Group (as represented by Bill Keller and Arianna Huffington) have been at war over ethics for months now.

The main allegation in Carr’s piece – that Mike has behaved unethically with regards to disclosures – is flat wrong, and it should be corrected. And yet, tempting as it is to fight fire with fire, I’m not sure it’s fair to make Carr the enemy of the piece here or to conflate Carr the writer and the New York Times the organization. To do so is to risk appearing hypocritical.

For one thing, TechCrunch has been guilty — at least once — of using duff evidence to make allegations of wrong-doing against an innocent company. When it happened, we took steps to correct the piece — just as David Carr and the New York Times are (slowly) correcting the errors in their piece. Also, just as Carr is incorrect to assume that TechCrunch staffers write puff pieces about companies their boss invests in, there’s no evidence to suggest that Carr wrote his attack on Mike at the behest of Bill Keller. Finally, it’s hardly David Carr’s fault that the New York Times doesn’t disclose its interest in the Red Sox any more than I am to blame for everything that happens at TechCrunch.

No, if we should be criticizing Carr for anything (and we most certainly should) it’s for trying to cover a Silicon Valley publication from New York, and for failing to understand what makes TechCrunch such a unique editorial beast.

Carr’s assumptions about TechCrunch are based on how just about every other newsroom in the world works. In most other news organizations, the editor wields a huge direct influence over what appears in print or online. There’s a daily – or at least weekly – editorial meeting in which stories are approved and there is at least one level of editorial oversight before something is published. Certainly there are very, very few editors who will permit — let alone encourage — even senior staffers to write posts opposed to the publication’s party line. If TechCrunch were an organization like that, it would be perfectly logical to infer wrongdoing when a contributor writes glowing things about a company in which the editor-in-chief has invested.

But TechCrunch is not an organization like that.

For one thing, TechCrunch writers edit and publish their own stories. We don’t have a morning editorial meeting in which Mike — or anyone else — signs off on stories; we don’t have an editorial work flow at all in fact. Generally speaking, Mike doesn’t see stories until they appear on the site and if he has any input on what’s written it’s given after the fact. I have never, ever known Mike to tell even the most junior writer what line to take on a story. A personal example: I once wrote an extremely negative post about a company in which one of Mike’s friends is a significant investor. I heard nothing from Mike when I posted the piece. It was only months — literally months — later that he mentioned to me in passing how many calls he’d received complaining about the piece and demanding that he “do something” about me. Mike had laughed them all off: he doesn’t interfere with his writers.

In terms of disclosures, this hands-off approach will inevitably lead to perception problems. TechCrunch writers generally hear about Mike’s investments around about the same time that readers do. For that reason, it’s perfectly possible (likely, even) that one of us will write and publish a favorable (or negative) story about an Arrington investment without realizing it. That’s what appears to have happened in at least one of the examples that Carr cites as so damning.

In fact, in every single case where the writer of a piece has been aware of a conflict, it has been disclosed. And in every case where Mike is aware that a contributor is working on a story about one of his investments, he’s either remained absolutely silent on the story, or he’s immediately disclosed the fact to the writer. The only real ethical conflict at TechCrunch comes where Mike writes a post about a company in which he is an investor. Of course he’s going to be biased — which is precisely why he goes out of his way to over-disclose his interest.

(Incidentally, Carr’s mention of LikeALittle in his piece is particularly amusing given how vocal I’ve been about how much I hate that stupid company. I learned about Mike’s investment a couple of weeks ago and it goes without saying that next time I mention them – perhaps in a post entitled “What the fuck were you thinking, Mike? They’re AWFUL” – I’ll be sure to disclose the relationship.)

Still, as I wrote last week, the founding of the CrunchFund does raise serious problems with the perception of conflict; and that perception threatens to tar us all. For that reason it’s only right and proper that Mike relinquishes his editorial role and chooses a successor — something he agreed to do, even before this madness exploded.

But here’s the thing that David Carr doesn’t understand, that Arianna Huffington doesn’t understand; that no-one except those who have actually worked at TechCrunch can possibly understand: TechCrunch is not a publication with a single voice. TechCrunch is a collection of writers, brought together by Mike Arrington to write about the technology industry as they see it. Mike’s brilliance as editor has been to give writers everything they need to do their jobs — an office, a platform, a salary and the confidence that he has their back if everything goes to shit — without ever once demanding they share his opinions or his biases. If you wonder why I, and other writers at TechCrunch have so much loyalty for Mike; that’s why.

That’s also the reason that, even had Mike stayed as editor-in-chief, I can’t imagine a world in which he would exert pressure on any TechCrunch writer to take a particular line on a story. Nor can I conceive of a universe in which he would punish — so much as grumble at — a contributor who wrote something that embarrassed him.

By contrast — and you can quote me on this, David — I just about zero confidence that either of those statements will be true for whoever Huffington Post Media Group might nominate to replace him.

[Last minute update: As if summoned by the Gods to prove my point about TechCrunch’s lack of central control and discussion, it turns out that MG Siegler (who was also mentioned in David Carr’s piece) was busy posting while I was still busy writing.  On his personal blog, he’s written a great piece rebutting Carr, explaining how TechCrunch really works and calling out those who make wrong-headed assumptions based on other organizations. Go, read.]

[Image credit: Haxorjoe]