In a forehead-slapping conflict of interest that probably anyone in Silicon Valley could have pointed out to the New York Times, that publication's style magazine, T, lauded a list of five entrepreneurs “harnessing goodness through technology.” But who better for the task of corporate portraiture than someone with vested financial and personal interests in one of the companies receiving praise: Airbnb, whose "octane" CEO Brian Chesky is among the magazine's list of these "Transformers."
The conflict of interest is, in fact, little more than what meets the eye. It's right there in the writer's name: Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen. To be specific, the investment firm of her spouse, Marc Andreessen, led a $112 million investment in Airbnb, which might seem well worth mentioning to readers who might not otherwise make the connection. In fact, "Airbnb... was still a bumbling startup when Andreessen led its Series B round,” the New Yorker wrote in May. However, no such disclosure appeared in the magazine, which ran the glowing piece this month.
Therefore the Time's Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, sharply criticized the editorial choice in a blog post published yesterday. "This is a case in which the financial conflict is so clear, and the spousal tie so close, that a disclosure would not have been enough," she writes. "A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one."
Of course, the inclusion of Airbnb's CEO would be perhaps more permissible if the coverage weren't just boosterism. "[For] Chesky," Arrillaga-Andreessen writes, "it’s not all about business: 'I've heard countless stories about how Airbnb has helped tear down barriers between people of different backgrounds and cultures.' he says."
In the words of Sullivan, "the article was extremely favorable." It also characterized Airbnb as the victim of a sole critic: "Not everyone’s thrilled, of course," the original article reads, "The hotel industry has spent millions trying to combat the company’s growing reach.
T’s editor, Deborah Needleman, responded to Sullivan's questioning.
I disagree that we shouldn’t have let Laura write, as she is a separate person from her husband with her own career and credentials, having created a program for philanthropic study at Stanford. I sought out her opinion for those reasons, but agree that we should have had a disclosure, and it was my mistake in not asking her if there were any potential conflicts. This was an oversight on my part. I say this not as an excuse, but she is, separately from her husband, a billionaire (making her through marriage a billionaire twice over) and for that reason I think I failed to consider any monetary conflict in her case. Had I done that, I would have thought twice about the Airbnb mention, but as I believe in her expertise and opinion, might still have wanted to run it, but absolutely would have included a disclosure.
Nonsense excuses aside, the article now bears the following online, and an editors' note has appeared in print.
(Disclosure: The writer’s husband, Marc Andreessen, is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm that is an investor in Airbnb.)
Last, don't get us started on the inclusion of Elizabeth Holmes, also called one of “The Greats” in the same roundup. Her company is under intense scrutiny after a damning article in the Wall Street Journal alleged the company has drastically misrepresented its technology and "innovation." The Theranos portion of the Times' article has been updated slightly as well.