Journalism’s Church And State Division Is No Longer Relevant, But Telling The Truth Is

Micheal Arrington of Tech Crunch has a way of getting under journalists’ skin. He did so again last week when he announced he was stepping down as Editor of the site he founded in 2005 to focus on Crunch Fund, a new venture capital fund that will work with some of the companies that get coverage on Tech Crunch.

Naturally, mainstream journalists cried foul. You can’t work both sides of the typewriter. That’s a fundamental tenet of journalistic ethics. But Arrington has never claimed to be journalist, despite his roll in showing journalists and media companies what it means to be convey important information in today’s networked economy.

“I don’t claim to be a journalist,” Mr. Arrington told The New York Times last week. “I hold myself to higher standards of transparency and disclosure.”

Damn, that’s got to hurt. First, the guy starts a blog which beats mainstream media at its own game, he then sells the site for $30 million to AOL and now he gets AOL to pony up $10 million more to back his venture fund. And when questioned, he blinds the establishment with mirrors.

Kara Swisher of All Things D and David Carr of the Times have been particularly vocal in their distaste for Arrington’s latest move. Swisher said of the deal, it’s “a giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile.”

Here’s some of Carr’s thinking:

At this point, it seems that AOL executives would open up a lemonade stand in front of their headquarters if they thought it would help their bottom line. But the idea of a news site that covers every aspect of nascent tech companies sharing a brand name and founder with a venture capital firm financing these same companies seems almost comically over the line.

Arrington is busy defending himself on Twitter today, saying the Times is an owner of the Boston Red Sox, yet the paper never discloses that fact when writing about the team. An editor of the Times replied that the paper would disclose its ownership in a financial article, versus a sports article. Arrington scoffed at that construct, and his point about always disclosing his investments gives him solid ground to stand on.

But here’s the thing…a debate about journalistic ethics is purely academic. It has no bearing on what media companies and their employees are willing to do to get ahead, as we’ve recently seen with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. It’s also not something that concerns most readers or viewers. If journalistic ethics were important to people, Fox News wouldn’t be as popular as it is, and the idea of embedded war reporters would be ridiculed.

Reporters and media companies do have a responsibility to tell the truth. But there’s no workaround for the fact that one’s truth will be shaped by many factors, including background, relationships and one’s strongly held beliefs. I endeavor to be fair here on AdPulp. I also recognize that I have a foot in two different, but closely related, camps–I’m a reporter and an ad guy. Because I am, I could tread lightly and hold back from criticizing the work, and the poor practices that lead to it. But what fun would that be?

Media is a marketing service today. Whatever line that formerly separated the two is forever blurred. That doesn’t mean integrity and a new set of standards aren’t in place. It means, there’s a much higher premium being placed on transparency than ever before. And transparency is simply not a value that traditional media companies have ever held near and dear.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.