Grasping for Meaning in the Huffington-Arrington Spat

Huffington blames the media in her defense of her journalism ethics

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The TechCrunch saga--starring founder Michael Arrington, his boss Arianna Huffington and her boss Tim Armstrong--is more or less over. During those twelve days of turbulence, contradictory statements from all three of those stars left journalists grasping for sources and scoops. Among others, the dominant theory for how Michael Arrington went from TechCrunch editor to unpaid Huffington Post blogger in less than two weeks revolves around a power struggle between Arrington and Huffington. Though a number of outlets reported on the internal turmoil, Huffington denied any "war of words" with Arrington and scolded The Wall Street Journal for "acting like supermarket gossip rag, not a serious business publication" in claiming otherwise. But despite her well-worded argument, nobody seems to buy Arianna's version of the story.

Huffington called out WSJ reporters Jessica Vascellaro and Emily Steel by name in lambasting the ambiguously titled story, "Culture Clashes Tear at AOL." Huffington doesn't quote The Journal at length, but she latches on to a few terms. In explaining how Vascellaro and Steel "sought to paint the situation as a 'culture clash' based on 'clashing personalities' and driven by 'a war of words,'" Huffington writes:

The issue at hand wasn't about personalities. It was about principle; a very simple fundamental principle about conflicts of interest that every journalistic enterprise adheres to -- including the Wall Street Journal, as its former publisher L. Gordon Crovitz points out today. But you wouldn't know that from the breathless opening grafs of the exceptionally misinformed, substance-lite, and anonymous-quote-riddled piece.

Huffington stops short of actually denying a personal conflict between Arrington and herself. She argues, fairly effectively, the above point that a "fundamental principle" guided the controversy and points out a lack of evidence that Arrington and she have engaged in a war of words.

Michael Arrington's behavior on Monday suggests that this might not be the case for long. "Ok @arianahuff," he tweeted shortly after Huffington's column went live. "Let's go ahead and talk about how this really played out." ("Oh, let's," wrote Kara Swisher in response. "Although part of me (and I know this might seem ironic) wants to make it stop.") The tweet came a few hours after Arrington announced his departure from AOL and TechCrunch on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. Reuters' Jennifer Saba reports from the audience:

"It's no longer a good situation for me to stay at TechCrunch," Arrington said, calling it a sad moment for him and promising to get the controversy out of the way at the start, to avoid distracting from the 3-day conference in San Francisco.

True to form, the pugnacious Arrington unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the words "unpaid blogger" printed in large letters, a jab at AOL/Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, who had insisted that Arrington was no longer an AOL employee after news of his VC fund surfaced.

Meanwhile, the very same tech journalists who had reported on the tension between Huffington and Arrington found themselves again grasping for meaning. "Huffington says this wasn't in any way a personal beef or a turf war between her an Arrington," explained Jeff Bercovici, who wrote a column last week on the "War at AOL". "Maybe that's true on her behalf, but on Arrington's side, it's always about personality, as he made clear today in executing what will probably be his last official duties for TechCrunch…"

Around the time Bercovici weighed in, Fortune writer Dan Primack got into a discussion with Swisher over what it all means, and they came to an agreement. "You see that as anything other than shooting the messenger?" Primack asked Swisher to start.

"Hmm, not sure," she replied. "I don't think (and I never reported) she was as big a player in this as Armstrong. And I never saw or heard Arrington calling her out in particular, more AOL in general. His staff did. But water under bridge."

"To me, this all was a microcosm of AOL's troubles," Primack deduced. "Not Arrington v. Arianna, but massive chaos and lack of coherent leadership."

Primack's is an argument worth considering. Let's run through the timeline of Arrington's boisterous exit from AOL. On September 1, The New York Times reported that Arrington was firing up CrunchFund with AOL's money sparking immediate criticism over the obvious conflict of interest and inevitable assault on journalistic ethics. In that report, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong told readers that AOL and their newest acquisition The Huffington Post "have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch." With her take on the matter conspicuously absent from the original report, Arianna said in no uncertain terms the following morning that Arrington was no longer employed by AOL but would continue to write. Arrington seemed basically confused about what was happening, saying he had "no idea what AOL’s final position on this will be" and would "respond once Arianna has made her last statement." His response inevitably came in the form of a blog post that demanded either editorial independence from The Huffington Post or the opportunity for TechCrunch's shareholders to buy the blog back from AOL. Otherwise, he said, he would quit. That's where the saga left off on Friday, and Arrington's departure was official on Monday, September 12.

It's hard not to read Huffington's latest blog post vis-á-vis the above chronology as a symptom of chaos. Regardless of the specific in-fighting that happened behind the scenes, the ones that the anonymous sources in Vascellaro and Steel's article cite, there was apparently a miscommunication between the highest levels of AOL leadership. If Huffington believed so strongly in avoiding conflicts of interest, why would Armstrong have labelled Arrington and TechCrunch an exception? Perhaps he hadn't even talked to her or had even kept her in the dark, as another anonymous source told Business Insider. But again, we don't know for sure exactly what happened behind the scenes.

We'll surely hear more from Michael Arrington in the coming days, and perhaps, some light will be shed on Arianna Huffington's defense of the principles at stake in the TechCrunch saga. The fact of the matter is that the gauntlet of finger pointing does little to dismiss claims like Primack's that AOL has a leadership problem. (Ryan Tate at Gawker also thinks that Arianna Huffington has a hypocisy problem when it comes to scolding others about conflicts of interest.) Taking a step back, Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic thinks that dispute actually reveals the broader challenge of changing notions of trust in journalism. Emphasis his:

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 foreverDavid 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.  …

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. 

We might never know the exact plot of the TechCrunch saga, but like Madrigal says, the process of learning the details is revealing in and of itself.

(Full disclosure: I worked as an editor at The Huffington Post in from 2009 to 2010.)

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