Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth
Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).
There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.
First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.
Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “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.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.
Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is 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.”
Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.
Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”
Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him 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?”
These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?
Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.
Michael’s conclusion: “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.” Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing.
Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)
Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.