The Michael Arrington Matter

There is quite the ethics flap going on over the last 72 hours or so about TechCrunch’s handling of leaked Twitter documents.

Looming questions: Is Michael Arrington wrong to distribute any of the leaked material, which a hacker stole? Is the posting of the documentation unconscionable? Is there journalistic excuse, or justification for it?

The disclosure:

  • Likely is legally negligent
  • Violates journalistic ethics
  • Discloses Twitter trade secrets
  • Probably interferes with a criminal investigation

Michael Arrington was a lawyer before becoming a blogger mogul. He should know the law. A lawyer and stolen documents go oddly together in a bad way.

A Lawyer’s Ethics
By my observation of TechCrunch business practices, Michael Arrington applies lawyer’s ethics to his blogging operation. Lawyer principles seek to protect client relationships. Pretty much anything is OK, except disclosing information clients share with the attorney. In a way, then, I see some irony in his willingness to disclose confidential Twitter business plans and other information.

There’s another way that Michael Arrington applies lawyer practices to TechCrunch. Lawyers are notorious for floating out trial balloons—information, misinformation or rumors to gauge somebody’s reaction. TechCrunch regularly floats trial balloons.

Traditional journalists are expected to get the facts right before a story is published. TechCrunch takes a different approach. “Stories evolve on our blog,” Michael Arrington blogged last month. “It can start with a rumor, which we may post if we find it credible and/or it’s being so widely circulated that the fact of the rumor’s existence is newsworthy in itself. But then we evolve a post to get to the truth.”

TechCrunch uses this approach as part of the reporting process. Michael Arrington explains:

Some people ask why we don’t just wait until we have the whole story before posting. That’s where the cheap/expensive quote above comes in. The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information. It’s that iterative process…And readers love it.

Circling back to lawyer ethics applied to TechCrunch: Michael Arrington invests in many of the same companies that he writes about. He occasionally has admitted this. Conflict-of-interest claims have dogged him for years. A May 2006 Michael Arrington post attempts to address the conflict-of-interest issue, but in a misdirected way. He asserts to not taking payments for posts while dodging the thornier problem of investments.

Was it Right to Leak?
There is a simple ethical quandary behind TechCrunch’s decision to publish any portion of the stolen Twitter documents. By a lawyer’s ethics applied to journalism, there’s a sense to TechCrunch’s actions, if any legal wrongdoing is put aside. But by traditional journalistic standards, Michael Arrington crossed a line, and, unsurprisingly, he is attacked for it.

The Angry Drunk asks “Is Michael Arrington Still a Dick?”:

It’s one of the eternal questions that has vexed mankind since the dawn of civilization. Socrates pondered it. Tacitus meditated upon it. Aquinas prayed over it. Locke (the real Locke, not the gimp on the Island) debated it. Rand would have pontificated about it, but she was too busy giving a ‘Captain of Industry’ a Rusty Trombone.

I’m not opposed to the publication of leaked documents. There is absolutely place for them, particularly when the public is being or has been harmed. If there’s harm in Twitter, it’s certainly not the minutia of business plans contained in the stolen documents—a whopping 310 pages.

Andrew Keen defends Michael Arrington:

Given that I’m writing this in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that published leaked content about MPs expenses, I’m certainly not going to join the bloodythirsty mob baying for Michael Arrington’s head…He only decided to post this material on the Internet because—like publishers of sensational news or pornography—he knew that people would want to read it.

Yes, but the leaked documents Andrew describes exposed spending abuses that were in the public’s interest to know. Responsible journalists investigate. They also verify the leaked documents’ veracity.

Being First Isn’t Always Right
Of course, Michael Arrington published the Twitter documents because people will read them. His business is all about clicks. His willingness to publish rumors or not-fully-verified facts puts publishing first before making sure the story is right. Such practice ensures Google News placement and lots of inbound links. Some of these stories stir up controversy and drama.

Controversy brings its own pageview and links rewards, too. In a December 2008 post, Robert Scoble succinctly identifies the Michael Arrington strategy around controversy: “There aren’t enough smart people so you gotta create some drama to pull in the idiots.”

This get-it-first mentality has led TechCrunch to publish much misinformation, but so-called idiots believe because there is drama and often no adequately corrected record. An appropriate example: In April 2009, Michael Arrington wrote that “Google is in late stage negotiations to acquire Twitter.” All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher, who has an excellent record of factual reporting, later corrected the story. She explained that while the TechCrunch story “certainly sounds exciting, it isn’t accurate in any way.”

Kara is pretty clear about the ethics regarding the Twitter documents:

For all the noisy hubbub over should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-publish confidential documents hacked from password-protected accounts of Twitter employees, as well as a Twitter spouse, it is actually pretty simple. Stolen equals stolen.

Michael Arington portrays the limited number of documents disclosed as being ethical:

There is clearly an ethical line here that we don’t want to cross, and the vast majority of these documents aren’t going to be published, at least by us. But a few of the documents have so much news value that we think it’s appropriate to publish them.

I’ll credit TechCrunch’s cofounder for this: The story behind the story is damn interesting reading. Kudos for that.

Yesterday, I tweeted about the stolen, leaked documents: “Were Twitter papers leaked to NYT or WSJ? If yes, they haven’t published. If not, why not?”

The first Q anyone should ask: “Why TechCrunch?” One answer: Because the thief could confidently expect that some, if not all, the documents would be published.

Photo Credit: Robert Scoble

Do you have a performance story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joe at joewilcox dot com.