The author of the piece was Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a curious choice for any journalistic undertaking related to the world of technology and entrepreneurship. That’s because she’s a player in this world. The bio on the site of her philanthropic organization — the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation — lists more than 10 titles that she holds or has held, including: founder and president of the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation, founder and board chairman of Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society), founder, chairman emeritus and former chairman (1998 to 2008) of SV2 (Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund), president of the Marc and Laura Andreessen Foundation, director of the Arrillaga Foundation, a board member of Sand Hill Foundation, and a former trustee of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Hoover Institution, Castilleja School, Menlo School, Eastside Preparatory School, San Francisco Art Institute and Children’s Health Council.
The title that got Arrillaga-Andreessen in trouble with the Times ombudswoman, however, was “wife.” In her piece on Chesky, the author had failed to note that her husband, Silicon Valley titan Marc Andreessen, had provided critical investment capital for Airbnb. Presented with that conflict of interest, T editor Deborah Needleman inserted a disclosure in the piece but insisted that it didn’t disqualify Arrillaga-Andreessen as writer of the story: “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,” noted Needleman. “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.”
Sullivan ruled that the story shouldn’t have carried Arrillaga-Andreessen’s byline.
We often wrestle with the very issue cited by Needleman. There are times, for instance, that the Erik Wemple Blog feels empowered to write about Mother Jones, where the Erik Wemple Blog Wife is employed as a staff writer. We try to disclose that conflict each time. Husbands and wives, as Needleman argues, have their own careers and interests; why should we be sidelined from certain professional pursuits just because of whom we choose to marry? For good reason, it turns out: In the case of Chesky, for instance, any favorable treatment in T brings benefits for the Andreessen household.
For Arrillaga-Andreessen’s story, however, a more stirring conflict of interest has nothing to do with her marriage. Arrillaga-Andreessen herself has significant connections with Janah — ones that should have disqualified her from writing the piece. Janah is the co-founder of Samahope, a charity that supports small health-care providers throughout the world. The website of Samahope lists Arrillaga-Andreessen as one of the charity’s advisers, and TechCrunch identified her as one of Samahope’s “angel” investors.
Given those connections, Arrillaga-Andreessen probably didn’t need to do tons of research to put together her write-up on Janah. It describes the three entities under the Sama Group umbrella: “Samaschool … gives low-income people in Kenya and the U.S. the training needed to enter the digital economy. (Janah aims to reach 25,000 individuals by 2017.) Samahope, a health care crowdfunding site for developing countries, has funded treatment for more than 3,000 patients around the world. Samasource helps women and young people find microwork by doing computer-based tasks.” No mention anywhere of Arrillaga-Andreessen’s role in this good-news story, though it does include this line: “What’s smart about Janah’s model is that nonprofits, like for-profit startups, need capital and support to bring their ideas to market.”
Through a New York Times representative, Needleman issued this statement in response to questions from the Erik Wemple Blog: “I sought Laura out because of the way she thinks about philanthropy and business, and asked her to highlight five companies we both thought were innovative. I am aware that she advises many tech company leaders on how to give their money away, and that her husband is a major venture capitalist. I made an error in not asking her what both her and/or her husband’s financial relationship to these companies was, and that was entirely my fault.”
Three out of the five mini-profiles are now limping: The items on Chesky and Janah are poisoned by conflicts of interest, and the piece on Holmes has been overtaken by a Wall Street Journal investigation.
Updated Nov. 5 at 9:40 a.m.: Make that four. The Silicon Valley Business Journal reported in August 2014 that Karp’s Palantir Technologies had acquired Propeller, a mobile start-up that had secured financing from Marc Andreessen’s firm, Andreessen Horowitz.