In a recent issue of T Magazine, a glossy New York Times supplement that serves mostly as a catalog of luxe advertisements, billionaire heiress Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen helped out her billionaire husband, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. This is why we should banish the rich from all media.
Arrillaga-Andreessen’s article, “Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World,” was a perfectly executed piece of pro-Silicon Valley propaganda, presuming only the best intentions from these visionaries, and of course presuming that they are visionaries at all.
“These brilliant minds blur the lines between big business and social impact, harnessing goodness through technology,” her piece begins. Our first brilliant mind is Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the health-services company Theranos whose defining product is in the process of being widely debunked.
Third on the list, though, is Brian Chesky, the body-builder-turned-founder and CEO of Airbnb, a convenient rooming service that makes it easy to find a room in any city, and is also doing much to destabilize and disrupt (in the bad way!) neighborhoods in those cities for the residents who actually live there. That part isn’t mentioned—instead, Airbnb is described as an unqualified boon for both hosts and guests, and a thorn in the side of big hotel:
And indeed, Airbnb ‘‘guests’’ often say having an authentic travel experience is as important to them as the cost savings. (Listings vary widely, but for a city like Paris, which is the company’s biggest market, the average price is about $115 per night for a one-bedroom apartment.) Conversely, at a time when middle-class wages are declining, ‘‘hosts’’ are able to treat their home as added revenue. A recent Airbnb study found the typical ‘‘host’’ earned a 14 percent increase in his or her annual income by using the site. (Not everyone’s thrilled, of course: The hotel industry has spent millions trying to combat the company’s growing reach.)
What wasn’t included in the article until enough people complained, however, was a mention of the fact that Arrillaga-Andreessen’s husband is a major investor in Airbnb. His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, was at the helm of a $112 million VC round in 2011. You’d be hard pressed to find a more flagrant example of a journalistic conflict of interest, unless Marc had written the piece himself: Anything that is good for Airbnb is good for the Andreessen family, period. As the company succeeds, it steps closer to an IPO, turning Marc Andreessen’s paper stake in the firm into real dollars. Articles like this T Magazine round of seven minutes in heaven help Airbnb succeed, aiding a rich man in his quest to become richer.
A win for Airbnb isn’t just a win for Marc Andreessen’s future net worth. His status as a duke of Silicon Valley is tied to his reputation for picking winners; not just founders who are making a good product, but ones making something transformative, innovative, revolutionary, and so on and so on. If you asked Marc Andreessen for a mission statement, he could probably just quote his wife’s piece: His portfolio ought to “blur the lines between big business and social impact, harnessing goodness through technology.” T Magazine has basically just handed out brochures for Andreessen Horowitz.
This mind-boggling and very obvious conflict is the subject of today’s dispatch from New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who asked T editor Deborah Needleman for a response. That response, too, is mind-boggling:
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.
1. Needleman didn’t bother googling “andreessen airbnb.”
2. Needleman couldn’t find someone who wasn’t the wife of the most famous venture capitalist in Silicon Valley to write about startups.
3. Needleman thinks the rich are incorruptible.
The counterpoint for that last premise is every rich person, yet this very American myth is having a moment. It’s exactly the same worldview most recently trotted out by Donald Trump at last night’s GOP debate, hammering his opponents for relying on super PACs that he says make them pawns of monied interests. His opponents are pawns of monied interests, but the fact that he’s (partially) self-financing his campaign doesn’t mean he’s pure of heart. Needleman is arguing that the already-rich are immune to the temptations of money, and have no interest in one more paycheck (albeit a relatively small one from a magazine). Yet Marc Andreessen still keeps a day job.
You shouldn’t buy any of these premises, and it doesn’t seem like Sullivan did either. A disclosure has been appended to Arrillaga-Andreessen’s article. But even if there hadn’t been a specific financial relationship to disclose, asking an enthusiastic participant in tech’s dumb money orgy to write, for a mass audience, about the other orgy-goers is asinine. The Andreessen household cannot be separated from the industry of startups, it is their raison d’etre and closest approximation of a soul. What’s good for startups per se is good for Marc and Laura, whether they have a specific stake in a given startup or not. The grand project of Silicon Valley is theirs.
It’s certainly true that Arrillaga-Andreessen didn’t write this article for the T paycheck, nor specifically and solely for her husband’s future Airbnb payday—for all we know she really does believe all that bullshit she wrote about changing the world. Arrillaga-Andreessen isn’t simply in the thrall of money, she’s in the thrall of so much more than that, beholden to an entire system of finance and power that makes people like her and her husband respectable and important. So please, no more. There’s no tower tall enough to give someone so rich and compromised the perspective to reflect on their world. It’s boring, it’s bad, it’s noise. Let someone else write. Let literally anyone else write.