On Conflicts of Interest and TechCrunch

On Conflicts of Interest and TechCrunch.

On a recent Gillmor Gang, at around minute 21:30, Jason Calacanis innocently says something like “I heard you could buy a review at TechCrunch”. A discussion begins about conflicts of interest, at one point Jason says “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety.” Or, in other words, when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.

I find it incredible that Jason makes the accusation that I take money for reviews, couched ridiculously as “something he heard”, and then makes a blanket statement to the effect that the simple fact that the accusation is made makes it effectively true, in the journalism business. As an influencer I think it was inappropriate for him to make that statement. Beyond that, the fact that he is a competitor makes it even more outrageous.

Jason has a history of these sort of theatrics with Nick Denton, and so I’m not assuming he’s set on crushing TechCrunch. Rather, I think this is just Jason’s style to make these statements about competitors. To him, it’s all part of the game. That’s not my focus here.

His point is worth talking about.

I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.

But let’s put that easy case aside for a moment. What about the more subtle ways that journalists can be influenced in what they write about, and what they say?

Steve Gillmor, taking up my defense and responding to Jason, says “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.”

He’s right. It’s impossible to be objective. Impossible.

How do you think ho hum startup Inform.com got a juicy article about themselves into the New York Times last October? Because it’s a hot new product? No. The reason Inform.com received such a stellar review in the New York Times is because its founder, Neal Goldman, is a very influential and very rich man who, I assume, knows people at the NYT very well. That company sure didn’t get written about on merit, so someone did someone a favor. Is this unethical?

Or take Jason Calacanis, now an employee of AOL. He writes about AIM Pages, a fairly poor attempt by AOL at copying Myspace. His post is titled “AIMPages is F-ing Hot!” and he writes a glowing review. Would he have written this if his company were not acquired by AOL? Is that unethical?

I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.

But let’s get back to TechCrunch. Ok, I don’t take payments for reviews. But let’s discuss a more subtle case. Google has treated me like yesterday’s trash when it comes to communication. They have a few favorite bloggers that they give news to and I’m not one of them. I tend to be harsh when reviewing their products (but not always). Is this my real opinion, or am I just bitter that I’m not one of Google’s chosen few?

Yahoo, Microsoft, Fox and Ask tend to include me in news embargoes. I often write positively about them (maybe because I don’t trash them) (but not always). Am I conflicted in my opinions because they include me in their news releases?

Or what about when a company takes me to lunch? Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them?

Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?

My point is this: Forget the easy stuff like direct payoffs. I don’t do take them and I would be shocked if any large blogger or journalist did. But our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.

And a final note on consulting, advisory positions, etc. I used to be open to these but it’s clear that I can’t do it and retain my reputation. So I’ve stopped (and I never wrote about the one or two companies I advised in the past without disclaiming any interest). I am currently an unpaid advisor to Pluck’s Blogburst (and they haven’t asked my opinion on anything recently) and I recently joined the board of a publicly held company – if and when I write about either of them I will fully disclaim my interest. I will also disclaim interests in companies I’ve invested in (only Edgeio, my startup, as of today). I am not taking any further advisory or consulting positions for the time being. And that just leaves advertisers on the sites. Since I look for companies that I actually like as advertisers, it’s likely that I will be writing about them. But I will, again, directly disclaim this interest at the time of writing. That’s more than most major publications do, but I will hold myself to this standard. 

Leave a comment