It's not just the risk of actual conflict, it's the appearance of conflict.
Uber’s announcement last week that Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington had joined the ride-hailing company’s board of directors touched off criticism within media circles. Wasn’t this a recipe for a massive conflict of interest, considering the Huffington Post routinely covers news about Uber?
As it turned out, critics didn’t have to wait long for what appeared to be conclusive evidence of a conflict. The day after the board announcement, the Washington Post‘s media blog reported that a senior editor at Huffington Post had killed an article about Uber, and that the main reason was that it was critical of the service.
Was this as conclusive as it seemed to be? Not according to some Huffington Post insiders, including the editor who originally killed the story (I’ve asked for comment from Arianna Huffington but haven’t received a response). Before we can really get to that, however, we need to recap the events of last week.
The spiked article was about an Uber driver who took a nap in his car and asked his passenger to drive, at which point the passenger led police on a high-speed chase and ultimately crashed the car. In his note to the reporter who suggested the story, Huffington editor Greg Beyer said: “Thanks, Sarah. Let’s hold on this one please, as we’re partnering with Uber on our drowsy driving campaign.”
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This wasn’t just a smoking gun. It looked more like a Gatling gun, with multiple smoking barrels. After all, the Huffington Post had not only killed a story that was critical about Uber, but killed it because it conflicted with a marketing campaign that the media outlet and Uber were working on—and all this just a day after Huffington was added to the board.
To add insult to injury, the “drowsy driving” marketing campaign itself was an offshoot of Arianna Huffington’s recent book about the need for sleep, a campaign that involved Uber offering passengers the chance to share a car with Huffington. And in one more level of irony, reporter Sarah Digiulio—the one who suggested the spiked Uber story—was working on the “sleep beat” as part of a partnership with mattress maker Sleep Number.
The problem with jumping to conclusions about this particular incident, however, is that the smoke doesn’t seem to be coming from the most obvious gun. According to an internal email that Beyer sent to Huffington Post staffers on Friday, the killing of the story was a mistake that he alone made, one that Arianna Huffington criticized him for—and the decision came weeks before he knew that she was joining the Uber board.
“Arianna spoke to me as soon as she found out, and told me what I already knew,” Beyer’s note said. “That my email completely contradicted what we stand for at HuffPost. She also asked me to send an email to acknowledge my mistake, apologize and reiterate our editorial guidelines.” The original note, he said, was “a message written in haste that contradicted a basic journalistic principle and the ethos of The Huffington Post.”
The note, said Beyer, wasn’t sent with the influence of Arianna Huffington or anyone else, it wasn’t an attempt to give Uber a pass, and it wasn’t “an institutional statement or mandate about HuffPost’s coverage of Uber.”
So does this absolve the Huffington Post of criticism, either for the Uber story that was killed or for Arianna Huffington’s board seat? Not really. In fact, it’s a great example of the larger problem with conflicts of interest, which is that even when they aren’t obvious, there’s an inevitable suspicion that they are lurking behind the scenes—and that suspicion can be almost as damaging as the outcome of an actual conflict.
In this particular case, Beyer’s mea culpa email likely isn’t going to convince people that Arianna Huffington didn’t have at least some role in killing the Uber story, and it certainly won’t convince them that her influence isn’t behind any future positive coverage of the company. Especially when sleeping is involved. Even some Huffington Post staffers have spoken out about the arrangement, albeit anonymously.
Journalists and media executives often argue that such concerns are misplaced, because partnerships like the one with Uber will actually drive reporters and editors to be more critical of a company rather than less, as a way of preventing accusations of conflict. But that misses the point completely, which is that readers are looking for reporting that they can trust on some critical level, and such conflicts endanger that trust.
The Huffington Post has been criticized in the past for many things, including the fact that it doesn’t pay most of the people who write for the site (staff writers are paid) and yet made millions when the company was acquired by AOL in 2011 for $315 million—a complaint that is somewhat similar to the criticisms that Uber gets for not treating its drivers properly). But that doesn’t impact the credibility of the actual reporting as much as something like Uber.
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And it’s not just Uber. Even without the spiked story, it might seem a little odd to some that the Huffington Post has a reporter assigned to the “sleep beat”—one that is related directly to the founder’s book on the topic, and whose salary is partly paid by a mattress manufacturer. That’s a far more tangled web than even the worst conspiracy theorists could concoct about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his control of the Washington Post.
Whether Arianna Huffington likes it or not, her practices related to things like sitting on the board of a controversial company that her media company covers are on the same spectrum as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s ownership of the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper—they’re just not quite as far over to one end of that spectrum.
In much the same way that readers will be skeptical whenever the Review Journal writes about casinos, Huffington Post readers may be increasingly skeptical when they read about Uber (or mattresses, for that matter) because of recent events. And that’s not a great place for a media outlet to be, especially when the attention of readers is so fickle, and giant competitors such as Facebook are so well equipped to claim it.