A Byzantine drama unfolded this weekend over whether Mike Arrington will be fired from TechCrunch, the tech blog he started. He's already been ousted as editor, supposedly because he's starting an investment fund, and that's a huge conflict of interest. But the ethical concerns are bullshit. This is a power play by Arianna Huffington, plain and simple.
If the Arrington goes, it will be Huffington's doing. The Huffington Post founder oversees editorial operations at AOL, the company to which Arrington sold TechCrunch almost exactly one year ago. She is, nominally, Arrington's boss, but has been more like a rival; no site has acted with more independence than TechCrunch since AOL acquired Huffington and HuffPo as overlords this past February. In the months just after the deal, Arrington and his crew continued to push back against AOL meddling, and secured a very public exception to HuffPo's financial conflicts policy.
That independence was asserted again Thursday, when Arrington announced he would form a venture capital vehicle called CrunchFund, seeded with $10 million from his bosses at AOL. He would stay involved with TechCrunch but defer more to other editors. By the end of the day, it was announced that Arrington had been demoted to writer. By Friday, Huffington was telling people that Arrington had been entirely removed from TechCrunch. But actually no! AOL then said Arrington would stay on in AOL's business development wing. Arrington himself had "no idea" whether he was technically employed by TechCrunch of AOL by the end of Friday.
Then came Siegler's post, "TechCrunch as we know it may be over," in which he wrote, "As soon as tomorrow, Mike may be thrown out of the company he founded. Or he may not. No one knows." We've had no luck reach Arrington today by phone, text or email, but it sounds like there's some kind of meeting on.
Here's the thing: Whatever happens, and whatever is said, it won't be about ethics. The idea that Arianna Huffington gives a lick about conventional journalistic standards is risible. As a former editor of hers told us:
Arianna makes personnel changes based on arbitrary whims, momentary impulses, and on cold calculations of power. She has a long record of closing her eyes to conflicts of interest. Applying it in the case of Arrington is merely a cover for some other undisclosed and undoubtedly more petty reason.
Arrington has a long history of financial involvement with the companies his publication covers. He was investing in startups basically from TechCrunch's founding in 2005 through 2009, when he took a break, and then announced in April he would resume again. It's a big conflict of interest, yes, but as we said this past spring it's the sort of conflict Arrington's business shark readers tend not to care much about, particularly when it's clearly disclosed.
More to the point, TechCrunch's comfortably conflicted reporting isn't all that different from the Huffington Post's comfortably conflicted reporting. Here are just a few of the conflicts that Huffington has embraced at her own publication, before she decided they were firing offenses at someone else's publication:
- Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer "returned to his editorial role with a vengeance for the 2008 [presidential] campaign," editing political coverage, even though he'd hosted a $2,300 per plate fundraiser for Barack Obama at his home the prior year.
- A disciple of Huffington's cult, the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, was a HuffPo editor who, we've repeatedly been told, shaped coverage in the site's Living Section, which became a haven for writing by MSIA true believers and for pseudo medical quakery . A Living Section editor was also forced to attend an MSIA-linked "seminar."
- Huffington, a liberal former politician, installed as her politics editor Nico Pitney, whose prior experience was as an editor at the liberal nonprofit ThinkProgress and as a researcher for the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. Pitney caught some flack, you'll recall, for asking a choreographed question at an Obama presser after Obama was elected president. Huffington's "senior politics reporter" is Amanda Terkel, who was also fresh out of ThinkProgress.
- Then there's Arianna herself, a former politician, regular opinionated lefty talking head, close pals with Newark Democrat Cory Booker and countless other pols, pimper of books and protector of friends. Who happens to run one of the most important political news publications on or offline.
- And, yes, Huffington pulls strings for her friends. At one point, HuffPo staff were told not to write about Paris Hilton because Arianna was friends with her mom Kathy Hilton, one veteran told us. Other friends get editorial jobs for their kids or maybe a flogging for a disfavored staffer.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. None of this is to say the Huffington Post is worthless; indeed, it's broken and continues to break important stories, particularly in politics, where it is most conflicted. TechCrunch, likewise, breaks plenty of news in tech, where Arrington is most conflicted. Both sites have loyal followings despite the fact that they run far outside the norms of conventional journalism. And one suspects both would have continued to do so, had Huffington not decided she had found the perfect pretext for getting rid of Mike Arrington.
Update: Arrington is fighting. He just wrote on TechCrunch that he wants from AOL "reaffirmation of the editorial independence promised at the time of acquisition," or the internet conglomerate should "sell TechCrunch back to the original shareholders." And Forbes' Jeff Bercovici hears from insiders that Huffington considered Arrington's move an "intolerable incursion into her territory. She demanded that Armstrong honor her contract and allow her to make an example of Arrington."