Not content with Hollywood fame and a bit of entrepreneurship, Ashton Kutcher decided to try magazine editing, putting together a special online edition of Details that included two features on hot tech startups. Just one problem: Kutcher’s an investor in most of the companies he writes about, and doesn’t disclose the conflict of interest anywhere. Punk’d!
In one section, titled “Generation Next,” Kutcher profiles a dozen companies, and is an investor in eight of them. Kutcher has also invested in three of the four companies whose founders he profiled in a section called “The New Titans of Tech.”
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Gawker‘s Ryan Tate pointed out the conflict of interest:
“As an actor, Kutcher has been savvy; as an investor, he’s well connected; as a magazine editor, he’s terrible, completely selling out readers.”
(Granted, Gawker‘s no ethical angel either. The site pays for exclusives—typically a frowned-upon practice—and last year stalked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a sort of revenge for the social network’s privacy issues.)
Traditionally, journalists are forbidden from investing in the companies they cover. But even journalists who don’t adhere to this rule know to make their conflicts of interest clear to readers. TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, for instance, invests in several companies and is a partner in a pair of venture funds, but makes a note of it in all relevant blog posts. In response to criticism, Arrington argued that conflicts of interest can take many forms, not all of them financial, and not all of them disclosed by other journalists.
In Kutcher’s case, Details decided that his conflicts of interest weren’t a problem. “I can assure you that Ashton is not looking at our 500,000 readers as an opportunity to feather his nest,” editor Daniel Peres told the New York Times. That may be true, and some some of the companies Kutcher wrote about—Flipboard, AirBnB and Foursquare among them—deserve to be mentioned as hot tech startups, but what’s wrong with a little disclosure?
It might make Kutcher look a bit misleading, but it’s not like he doesn’t already have a reputation for trickery.