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.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Democrat or Republican, no one on Capitol Hill is certain what changes the president will bring.
What can the American people expect from the 115th Congress? Sounds like a trick question, right––or the start of a bad political joke? I mean, what have the American people come to expect from every Congress: dysfunction, partisanship, hypocrisy, opportunism, chaos … Down, down, down the list spirals.
For all his Who’s-your-daddy swagger and drain-the-swamp chatter, Donald Trump is unlikely to make much of a dent in this dynamic. (Some cultures are simply beyond help.) But that doesn’t mean Capitol Hill isn’t braced for upheaval. Every election, particularly one involving a presidential transition, reshuffles legislative priorities and power dynamics. Toss in an erratic, ideologically fuzzy commander-in-chief who stumped hard against both congressional teams, and things could go topsy-turvy pretty quickly.
In his first official White House briefing, Sean Spicer blasted journalists for “deliberately false reporting,” and made categorical claims about crowd-size at odds with the available evidence.
In his first appearance in the White House briefing room since President Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an indignant statement Saturday night condemning the media’s coverage of the inauguration crowd size, and accusing the press of “deliberately false reporting.”
Standing next to a video screen that showed the crowd from President Trump’s vantage point, Spicer insisted that media outlets had “intentionally framed” their photographs to minimize its size. After attacking journalists for sharing unofficial crowd-size estimates—“no one had numbers,” he said—he proceeded to offer a categorical claim of his own. “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
The new president’s first actions in office suggest his style from the trail isn’t going away soon.
Inaugurations are America’s modern equivalents of Roman triumphs. Flanked by military and police vehicles, clad in the pomp of tradition, presidents of the United States take their solemn oaths and parade between the classical facades and colonnades lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Crowds of thousands—sometimes millions—of citizens look on. It is meant to be a celebration of the nation in all her stately, martial honor, and of the vir triumphalis who has claimed the status of its moral leader and commander-in-chief. But inauguration is also a transition, not only between presidents, but from the combat of the campaign to the peacetime of governance.
For President Donald Trump, however, that transition has not yet taken place. On Inauguration Day, Trump did not take off the laurel wreath and transform into a governor, but rather extended his fiery campaign. The earliest hours of his presidency suggest that, dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.
Images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
In Washington, DC, today, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets in a demonstration called the Women’s March on DC, while even more marched in cities across the United States and around the world, one day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Larger-than-expected crowds of women and their allies raised their voices against the new administration, and in support of women's rights, health issues, equality, diversity and inclusion. Below are images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.” [Update: Other images suggest it could have been VP Lyndon Johnson who was offering Frost the hat. I didn’t really notice at the time; whoever it was, the lasting image was of Frost’s struggling with his script and then beginning to recite.]
Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz tells a story about a man who ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the fall of a regime. Papers full of state secrets lie in the streets, their knowledge less important for the moment than that of where to find something to eat. A little boy plays in a bombed-out street, whistling a song about the leader. “The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”
When authoritarians fall from power, even if they are secretly mourned, they must be publicly forgotten. Yet they remain as traces within the bodies of their people. The muscle memory to salute, to sing their songs, to fear their wrath, can be hard to shake. My years of studying Mussolini and his two-decade long regime have taught me not to underestimate the individual and collective work of disentanglement that comes with the ruler’s fall from power.
Popular demonstrations can bring change and topple governments. They can also spark retaliation from those in power.
The signs were so clever.
“We shall overcomb.”
“Viva la vulva.”
“I MAKE THE BEST SIGNS I REALLY DO EVERYONE SAYS SO THEY’RE TERRIFIC.”
Someone even made a papier-mâché vagina dentata.
The people were so cheerful and happy to be with one another, forgetting the cold and enjoying what often seemed less like a protest and more like a block party. There were families there, with grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. They were ecstatic and in disbelief at the number of people. TheWashington Post reported that the organizers put the attendance at up to half a million. They had hoped for less than half that.
It was surreal how similar this all felt, and my Russian friends on social media confirmed it: “Totally Bolotnaya,” one of them wrote. Bolotnaya is the square in the center of Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, where on December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success. It was cold and gray that day, too, and the feeling of being in that joyous crowd was unforgettable, which is why I remembered it so vividly today. It is the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humor and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.