We were just starting to feel some resolution in the vicious debate over Michael Arrington's new venture fund, TechCrunch's editorial integrity, and AOL's mishandling of the two. And then TechCrunch published their first post about an Arrington-funded company, Bitcasa. It's a glowing review--nearly a thousand words of fawning over Bitcasa's ease of use, unbelievable value and a finalist in the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition that boasts a cash prize of $50,000. At the end of all that is the disclaimer, "Disclosure: CrunchFund is an investor in Bitcasa." The fact really makes you take a second look at passages like this:
Sharing files via Bitcasa is simple too: just copy and paste a file's or folder's link (a URL, available on right-click) and send to someone via email, IM or some other service. They click the link to have the file delivered directly to their desktop.
And the pricing! How on earth is it so cheap?
TechCrunch readers did not appreciate the tone. "This reads like a press release. Then you get to the bottom and learn that CrunchFund is an investor. I mean, come on." said top commenter John S. Wilson. "Unfortunately, I think this might just be the beginning. :\" replied fellow top commenter Max Woolf. Then came the sort of disturbing response from TechCrunch writer Sarah Perez. "For what it's worth, I had no idea when I interviewed them last week," wrote Perez. "Found out 5 mins. ago. Take it or leave it, but that's the truth."
Then came the response from the tech journalism community. "Reads like ad copy, then comes the CrunchFund disclaimer," tweeted Valleywag columnist and Gawker tech writer Ryan Tate. "@arrington I swear if you guys keep publishing technically and ethically abhorrent shit like that I will bring back Uncov," declared Ted Dziuba, referring to the now defunct TechCrunch competitor blog that he founded. "The glowing-est review ever. On Techcrunch. Nevermind that Crunchfund is an investor. For real," said Rafat Ali, founder of paidContent.
So now we know two things. One: Despite the heming and hawing from some insiders that TechCrunch would aggressively disclose any conflicts of interest at play in their coverage of CrunchFund-backed startups, their own writers don't even know about the conflicts when they go to interview those startups. Two: Regardless of Arrington's official affiliation with AOL or TechCrunch--he seems to be settling on "Unpaid Blogger" as a title--readers are upset and their dissatisfaction creates an opening for a competing blog to make an impact.
If you think about it as the punctuation to his leadership at TechCrunch, Michael Arrington's first tweet about Bitcasa reads somehow metaphorically: "Bitcasa is a gamechanger. unless they screw up."