Journalism’s Michael Arrington

arguing over objectivityThe tech press, based primarily in Silicon Valley, is leading the way in re-writing the rules for news from a position outside the “Big-J Journalism” box. This is typical of innovations in almost any field, for those who grew up in, were trained by, and have gained sustenance from a certain way of doing things are highly unlikely — if not actually unable — to set that aside and begin anew. This is the essence of Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma,” and its application is certain.

The tech press is an upstart bunch and the first to use the tools about which they write. The truth is that the tools of the personal media revolution were created by geeks for geeks as a way to communicate everything from ideas to facts. Those tools have always been interactive, because the framework of innovation works best with collaboration, so the software needed to accommodate such. Blogs and blog software, for example, were created by these people to work within a collaborative environment. They would never have been birthed by the traditional, hierarchical press.

This is not to say that the tech press operates entirely outside the realm of traditional media, for there still are the necessary matters of fairness and accuracy. But the group has clearly adopted other values that trouble the traditional press, especially concepts like speed, transparency and authenticity.

I should add that the term “tech press” suggests to me more than just those businesses covering the beat of technology. It also includes any blogger who writes of technology and its impact on institutions and culture, which means its definition is very broad. These people advocate, accept and often abide by a different set of guidelines than do those who cling to their claim of practicing so-called “real” journalism.

With that in mind, let’s examine the recent case of Michael Arrington and why I think it’s important for all of us to understand.

Arrington is the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, now owned by AOL, and one of the top tech blogs/media companies in the industry. Arrington is a brash attorney who has only been in the business of media for a few years. He certainly practices journalism, although many people don’t like his style and some would debate the assertion (Arrington included) that he’s actually a practicing journalist. He’s a good writer, although he can be abrasive. I find his prose refreshing, and he’s on my daily “must read” agenda, because he expresses what many people in the tech press believe but can’t or won’t.

Arrington recently resumed his practice of investing in tech companies, something he had done regularly before he started TechCrunch and up until 2009. As such, he’s run into criticism, not only from the traditional press screaming “conflict of interest,” but also from colleagues in the tech press. He argues this is hypocrisy, for everyone who writes and publishes is conflicted.

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…

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.

Michael Arrington and Jeff Jarvis

Arrington is joining with Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post to launch a website where the issue can be discussed. This week, he invited Jeff Jarvis to the stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference to expand the conversation. If you have even a passing interest in the news business, I strongly recommend you take 15 minutes to watch the interview. You will either be enlightened, infuriated, shaking your head, nodding in agreement or all of the above. Here’s a portion of the transcript:

ARRINGTON: So I have disclosed that I am making investments and competitors have freaked out about that and tried to make a big deal out of it, and that’s fine. I can defend myself. But there’s this issue of transparency in journalism that bothers me as a consumer of journalism. How big of a problem do actual journalists see that?

JARVIS: Well, let me ask you a question first. Are you a journalist?

ARRINGTON: No. Absolutely not.

JARVIS: Why do you eschew the title?

ARRINGTON: I see journalists as priests. They’re the only ones that are allowed to tell us what the news is.

JARVIS: But you reject it rather than taking it over. Why not take it over? Why not say that you are a new kind of journalist?

ARRINGTON: Why do I need to do that?

JARVIS: So, the title means nothing to you.

ARRINGTON: It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, no.

JARVIS: What does it mean to you? What does it convey?

ARRINGTON: When I think of journalism I truly think of people who are very, very biased hiding their bias behind theoretically objective text. But I see that the adjectives that they use, what they choose to cover and not cover, shows who they really are. And I remember at a dinner once in New York, I met a guy who had been at CNN forever, before that the Washington Post. And he was telling me how he had covered politics for a long time. And I said, “So are you a Republican or a Democrat?” He said “oh I can’t tell you”. And I said “why?” And he goes. “Well that would be, you know, if that got out, what I was, it would effect how people view my content.” I have a right to know what your actual views are so that I can read your supposedly objective content in light of that.”

JARVIS: We absolutely agree about that, that I said it one way and then David Weinberger said it better, that transparency is the new objectivity. That objectivity was bullshit, there’s no such thing.

Arrington’s argument is fascinating. He believes in transparency — to name those companies with which he has a financial interest — but he blocks transparency when it comes to his sources, and I find that perfectly acceptable. Arrington, however, acknowledges that such a practice is, in fact, a conflict of interest, and it’s acknowledgements like this that make his whole argument so compelling.

While this belief may shock some, it’s been debated for several decades with journalistic purists insisting that the sacred canons of ethics must be followed, while others argue that those canons exist primarily to create a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. I find the current discussion healthy, because I agree with David Weinberger that “transparency is the new objectivity.”

This is much more easily adapted, however, by the tech press than it is the traditional press, because they don’t have a contrary history. For a local media company to suddenly start professing a position, it would seem out of place, and that’s the trap in which we find ourselves. As I’ve stated previously, however, I did a research project in the Northwest in 2004 where we asked people if they’d object to a biased reporter, as long as that reporter was up front about the bias. The overwhelming majority said that would be fine.

As I look downstream, I see the manifestation of this change on the horizon. Already, the people formerly known as the advertisers are entering the world of news production, and they’re the ones with the money. For the traditional press, this whole idea is anathema, for what it means is the total destruction of our protected universe. Manipulation is very difficult when honesty is demanded up front, and that would be refreshing.

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