The Ethics Of Coming Clean

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If you’re not in the tech world, you probably have never heard of the Silicon Valley blog called TechCrunch. This is a widely-read and frequently-updated blog on happenings throughout the tech world. It is among the handful of top news sources for the tech world.

Bear with me as I set up a scenario. The details are important.

About a month ago, the site’s founder, Michael Arrington, wrote “An Apology To Our Readers” in which he said:

I received a phone call from someone I trust who told me that one of our interns had asked for compensation in exchange for a blog post. Specifically, this intern had allegedly asked for a Macbook Air in exchange for a post about a startup

After an investigation we determined that the allegation was true. In fact, on at least one other occasion this intern was almost certainly given a computer in exchange for a post.

The intern in question has admitted to some of the allegations, and has denied others. We suspended this person while we were sorting through exactly what happened. When it became clear yesterday that there was no question that this person had requested, and in one case taken, compensation for a post, the intern was terminated.

Arrington went on to delete all posts that had been written by the intern. Since the intern was underage, his name was originally withheld.

Daniel Brusilovsky by Flickr user magerleague
Daniel Brusilovsky by Flickr user magerleague

Later, though, the intern came clean in both a blog post and an interview with the startup-focused blog Mixergy. His name is Daniel Brusilovsky and he’s a 17 year old senior.

Here’s what he told Mixergy:

There is supposedly a company I was meeting with who offered me a MacBook Air in exchange for a post. That got escalated to TechCrunch and TechCruch wrote a post about it and terminated my employment with them.

Brusilovsky is in the news again, one month after the incident came to light, because another character has stepped forward — a business owner who says he was the one shaken down for a story.

Sam Odio, who is CEO of a tech startup called Divvyshot (and who is as far out of the Valley as you can imagine — in Charlottesville, VA [UPDATE — that’s ’cause he’s at school at UVA, according to his web contact details]), has written in his own blog that, “Daniel Brusilovsky recently asked the founder of a startup for a Macbook Air and offered coverage in exchange. That founder was me, the CEO of Divvyshot. I came forward to Mike at TechCrunch.”

For a long time, Odio had remained silent. According to him, he was initially shaken down evidently sometime in December 2009:

Daniel came to me about Air while writing this article. He wrote the article in “real time” while interviewing me. It was in this context that he told me a friend of mine (a guy I went to college with) bought him an iMac in exchange for an article. Daniel told me that the “cover story” for the iMac was that he had received it as a gift for his birthday. I don’t know exactly what their agreement was as I wasn’t there.

Sam Odio, from his blog
Sam Odio, from his blog

When Daniel told me about the iMac, he mentioned that he needed a new laptop and that he would cover Divvyshot’s upcoming announcements in exchange for a new Macbook Air. I was stunned and responded with something like “Haha, we’ll talk about it later.” I hoped the issue would be dropped after that interview but over the coming weeks Daniel continued to bring up the Air.

My reaction was always “we can do this, but not right now.” That was a mistake – I should’ve just said no. Instead it took me over a week of struggling with the issue before coming forward to Mike at TechCrunch.

Some time after coming forward to Arrington (but while he had still not told anyone else), Odio came upon what he saw as a sympathetic piece by prominent tech journalist Jason Calacanis. The piece criticized Brusilovsky’s less than full-throated apology. Odio sent a note to Calacanis saying that he was the one who’d been shaken down.

Calacanis forwarded the email to acerbic commentator Loren Feldman who took the opportunity to exert pressure to get more of the story by Tweeting: “Divvyshot. You have 24 hrs.”

And so Odio wrote his piece on Monday, laying out his role.

I am sharing the details of this story because it is a potentially very, very fruitful study about ethical decision-making. There are right-wrong as well as right-right questions all over the place:

  • Brusilovsky: The way he tells it, he and Odio were sort of joking over IM and the language could have been construed as a shake down. (He’s also said Odio was the one who initiated the exchange.) If the “joking around” story is true, at what point do you put a stop to such conversation and inform your superiors?
  • Odio: His start up could be made or broken (or so he thought) by a story in TechCrunch. How do you have the courage to say “no” when it is necessary (instead of a week later)?
  • Arrington: Confronted with the evidence, but faced with denial, how do you respond? Do you divulge who is involved? How about the companies involved?
  • Calacanis: You are a high-profile person who gets an email out of the blue. What obligation do you have over whether you divulge it or not? And to whom?
  • Feldman: You care deeply about transparency. Where do you draw the line over who you “out?” Or is that even a relevant question?

My own take is that Brusilovsky was in the wrong, and I find his explanation of the story hard to swallow. But he is also a young person. While he should know better, he may not have developed his moral compass fully yet — so, while his punishment seems right, the court of public opinion might do well to give him a second chance. Don’t hate on him too hard, in other words.

But, in the chain after the initial shakedown, the questions become much more murky and interesting. Each player had a right-versus-right dilemma (as my friend Rush Kidder would say). You can make a case that they did the wrong thing or that they did the right thing.

This is worth studying as a public leader. Often, it is the wrongdoing of others that places us in our own ethical dilemmas.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of Coming Clean”

  1. Thank you for this case study. All companies have a responsibility to set the parameters for interns and to show by example what and what is not acceptable. Sounds like everyone will learn valuable lessons. Payola is not something with which a company wants to be associated.

  2. Judith is right: it’s an object lesson for everyone involved — and for all of us. In my broadcast journalism background, one has to avoid any appearance of being “bought off”, and stations had clear guidelines that were part of the welcome package for new hires. Mind you, any 17-year-old interns I worked with would be put to work erasing tapes, stripping the teletype (yes, that dates me — all the way back to 1999!) and monitoring other stations’ newscasts. The closest they’d come to reporting would be doing the police and fire checks. If there was even a breath of a tradeoff, anyone — not just a rookie — would be hauled into the boss’ office for a conversation that probably would start with, “what in blazes are you playing at?”.

    Daniel … read this carefully: there is wrong in this world, and there is right. Contrary to what some may have taught you, there are no gray areas and they do not depend on what looks good to you at the moment because chances are they’ll mess up someone else. Trading any kind of coverage for a favour of any kind is WRONG. You have, potentially, another 40 years of career ahead of you and you want to cleanse yourself of this faux pas before it becomes “something you got away with” and escalates into something that sticks to you like the tattoo of the wrong girl’s name. When I was 17, I had already seen my dad, a TV producer, send back a pair of cufflinks that had been sent to him quite innocently by a guest on his show, thanking him for the air time. Dad would not let himself be accused of accepting any kind of favours. Others did – and may have been promoted faster at the network – but now they are gone, and my dad is 87 and living in more-than-comfortable retirement in his own house. Think about it.
    And to Dan’s parents … “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

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