I'm not going to pick sides on the TechCrunch saga that's bouncing around the Internet right now, but I do think it's more important than it appears on the surface. In essence, TechCrunch's founder Mike Arrington wants to run an investment fund that would put money into the companies that his website covers. Prominent journalists like David Carr and Kara Swisher argue that this is an unbelievable conflict of interest. The drama continues, but Arrington is going to run the fund and TechCrunch will continue, probably without him.
Here's what's interesting about this situation to me: the set of solutions to common information problems that we call journalism is coming unglued as different types of publications become possible on the Internet.
The generally accepted sense of journalistic ethics says you shouldn't have financial conflicts of interest and that this is not negotiable at the individual level. Journalism ethics reside in publications and more broadly within the idea of the fourth estate.
But the specific ethical principles of journalism were only true for certain types of publications, largely newspapers and magazines aka the mainstream media (MSM). Now, we've got a whole bunch of new types of publications with readerships rivaling the MSM but that are something different altogether.
Many websites are functioning largely as trade magazines that occasionally commit acts of journalism. TechCrunch, and Mashable to an even greater extent, are more like the new American Thresherman and Farm Power or Stone World or Successful Farming than they are the new New York Times. But it's hard to know when they're acting like the Times and when they are acting like Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine.
Even the news that they break would generally come out via a press release in due time. People care about what they write, and they beat other people to the information, but the scoops are fundamentally benign. (This company got some money, that company has a new app, another may do something that alters the competitive landscape.) Trade magazines have been doing this kind of thing for as long as there have been trade and magazines.
What TechCrunch figured out is that tech industry news could could really work as a mass-market sized play. When millions of freelancers act as one-person companies, business-to-business publications acquire a new, much larger audience. In other words, many, many people consider themselves part of the tech industry. All that user-centered innovation that people like MIT's Eric Von Hipple talk about? This is one sign of it. When people cobble together tech tools to build other tech tools, they need to know about all the new ones in glorious detail.
John Bethune has been watching the trade publication industry for 27 years and now runs B2BMemes.com. He said that it would be very "unusual" for a trade magazine writer to be investing in the companies that they cover. He noted that the American Society of Business Publication Editors states clearly in its code of ethics that such activity are off-limits. "Editors and staffers should not invest in, or hold stock of, any company that they will cover or be likely to cover," the code says.
That's not to say that there are not conflicts for business-to-business publication journalists. They have to deal with ethical issues constantly as advertising sales' teams try to bring in business.
Ethics tends to devolve to the sole journalist more than residing at the publication level, Bethune said. "With the trade press, you've got conflicts built in and the life of the trade journalist is learning to live with those conflicts and do the best that each one can to do as ethical a job as they individually feel they can," Bethune said. "In the trade press more than news journalism, ethics is more of an individual issue than a company issue. "
I talked to a couple of trade magazine editors to see how the Arrington move struck them. Maureen Alley, who edits Residential Design and Build magazine, was the first trade magazine editor I spoke with. Alley felt that there was a pretty clear ethics foul in what Arrington was up to. "The way journalism is now is that you have people who don't know anything about journalism ethics writing journalism-type things," Alley said. "No matter what type of reporting you're doing, you still need those ethics. Michael Arrington obviously doesn't see the value in these ethics."
When I asked Alley if she thought she could start a design and build business while running her company, she said no. "I don't think that could fly," she said. "It's not fair to the other businesses."
John Austen of the UK's Locks and Security Monthly, though, didn't think that there was such a clear ethical line. He thought someone could have one business in an industry while running a publication about that industry, "provid[ed] they keep them separate and don't use the one as a bandwagon to promote the other." Austen himself "ran a publication and also looked after the PR interests for a number of companies in that field."
Austen emphasized that trade magazines can't forget where their money ultimately comes from. "We're always trying to strike a balance between content/reader interest and knowing those [advertisers] that keep us going," Austen said. "We are in the real world."
My point here is that this story has gained incredible traction because it is The New AOL (TM) and TechCrunch versus The New York Times. But this is a forever problem when it comes to information. Bias in journalism has been the default assumption forever. David Carr-style journalism ethics was an important invention developed to fight pervasive bias. It didn't just happen. It partially solved the trustworthiness problem, at least temporarily.
Trade magazines have had to deal with these conflicts for a long time too in very intense ways. When the trade magazine association decides something is out of bounds, it's worth considering how big the change that Arrington wants to make to the journalism ethics toolbox.
TechCrunch's MG Siegler wrote on his personal blog, "The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless," but that strikes me as precisely incorrect. The market for information is predicated on the trustworthiness of that information. The back-and-forth is what creates the perception of that trust or lack thereof.
The New York Times doesn't operate with its current sense of ethics or purpose solely because they are a company full of great guys, but because they think it's a competitive advantage to be seen as fair and objective and trustworthy. The problem is that operating the way they do is expensive and slow.
TechCrunch's team is proposing that their own version of journalism, in which some pieces of the ethical machine have been tightened up (e.g. more transparency) while others have been loosened (e.g. investing in companies you cover is OK), is just as good as the Times' version. It certainly is cheaper and faster, but it gains those advantages by devolving responsibility to the individual, not the publication. It's every woman for herself. And we know how well that has worked out for the trade publications.
"As the industry has declined over the last 20 years, the pressure from sales to do whatever you can do bring in those advertisements, most of the guidelines have fallen by the wayside," Bethune told me.
Arrington may be able to walk the ethical tightrope, but if he erodes journalism's institutional ethics, he may do a lot more damage than promoting or ignoring a few tech startups would.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard on Monday night, "to address the growing violence and unrest in Baltimore City." Later Monday night, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a week-long curfew would be imposed on the city. Maryland State Police said they would request an additional 5,000 officers from the mid-Atlantic region to restore order.
Earlier in the day, police clashed with demonstrators during protests over the death of a young black man in police custody. Video footage showed a handful of protesters and bystanders throwing rocks and bottles at police officers in full riot gear, who responded with pepper spray and tear gas. City officials said at a press conference on Monday night that 15 officers had been injured and two were hospitalized, including one officer who was reportedly “unresponsive,” although further details about his or her condition were not immediately available. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.