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BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith Says His Uber Scoop Didn't Need a Disclosure

It's a weird second-day story, but BuzzFeed finds itself defending the merits of a giant scoop.

Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Ben Smith and BuzzFeed had a whopper of a story on Monday, when BuzzFeed’s editor in chief reported on an Uber executive’s plan to smear journalist Sarah Lacy.

A few days later, in some corners of the Internet, Smith and BuzzFeed are now the story. Several commentators, generally at right-leaning sites, are complaining that BuzzFeed’s coverage is biased against Uber because of conflicts of interest.

BuzzFeed’s detractors cite two different investments to make their case: BuzzFeed chairman (and backer) Ken Lerer is an investor in Uber rival Sidecar, and BuzzFeed investor Andreessen Horowitz is backing Uber rival Lyft. At a minimum, they argue, Smith should have disclosed the investments in his piece.

I’ve also heard this argument floated by people sympathetic to Uber, and I’ve even detected it getting a bit of traction from people who don’t seem to have any dog in the fight. Yesterday, I talked to an executive at a gaming company who wanted to know if I thought Smith’s reporting was compromised.

That’s easy: Not at all.

Smith’s bias, like almost all reporters’, isn’t ideological, but one that tilts him toward an exciting story. And he got a great one this week.

Okay. So what about disclosing his backers’ interests? That’s a bit gray for me.

I appreciate getting as much context as possible when I read. So I’m very happy that when I read a blog post from Union Square’s Fred Wilson on the Uber blowup, he says he has backed two Uber competitors, and thus is “not the least bit objective here.”

And Re/code strains mightily to avoid any conflicts and disclose as much as possible. For example, see Kara Swisher’s lengthy ethics statement, or my note about investor Terry Semel in a funding post I wrote today.

But it’s also easy to see this sort of thing creating an endless rabbit hole. If Smith disclosed that Andreessen backed Lyft, for instance, should he also disclose that Andreessen partner Chris Dixon was an early investor in Uber, via the Founder Collective fund he helped create?

Smith, via email, argues that listing his investors’ investments in his stories doesn’t make sense:

We follow the traditional, strict media practice of making a disclosure when we write about our investors, something we feel our readers should know as a matter of transparency. Like media companies from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg to the Washington Post, we do not have a newsroom conversation about, or expect our reporters to be aware of other investments made by our board members and investors. Investment has no bearing and no influence on our reporting, as I think our day in, day out coverage — and certainly our coverage of Uber — makes that clear.

We also have a strict policy against reporters investing in companies they cover, a higher standard than the convention in some of the Silicon Valley press of allowing reporters to invest if they disclose it, something that I think can erode readers’ confidence rather than reinforcing it.

BuzzFeed’s chief of staff Ashley McCollum also wanted to chime in:

Our board and investors are invested in thousands of companies and their competitors, and there’s zero correlation or connection between investment in BuzzFeed and our reporting.

So there you go, people who enjoy talking about this stuff — and you know who you are. Have at it, and enjoy.

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