"Do you see acquiring more content companies like TechCrunch and HuffPo?" Michael Arrington pointedly asked his boss, AOL chief Tim Armstrong, earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt, the annual tech conference and start-up competition put on in New York by the site Arrington founded and co-edits.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Then a hedge. Then Armstrong admitted that after a year in which he bought not only TechCrunch but also Huffington Post, he's still looking and "has a list in his head" of five or ten businesses in the content space in which he's interested.
"Sorry, you were talking…about what you would do when you get a hold of Yahoo?" Michael Arrington cut in.
As soon as Arrington had his boss on the defensive, forcing a denial of intent, Arrington accused Armstrong of something entirely different but equally, if not more, controversial: violating company policies and encouraging raucous "almost forced" weekly drinking nights at the AOL workplace.
Arrington is not known as light-handed or particularly graceful when he interviews. His style hinges on bringing his start-up expertise and facts—as well as brining yet-undisclosed or hypothetical facts—to the table and watching his subjects squirm. His tactic seems to be: If I'm not getting the full story out of you, this is going to get uncomfortable. And maybe so awkward it becomes fun.
It certainly makes for good viewing. (Never mind what Arrington is thinking…Publicity? More traffic to his site?)
Earlier, Arrington asked Arianna Huffington, who is now editor-in-chief of all AOL sites, whether being his new boss is "as awkward for you as it is for me? I'm not used to reporting to people! I'm not good at even constructive criticism."
She tried to soothe him. "I'm going to take you out to a nice dinner and we are going to have a lot of wine," she said.
But that was before Arrington had Armstrong on stage.
"Why is Arianna editor in chief? Why am I not editor in chief?" he grilled Armstrong, humorously for those of us watching from the office.
During another session, Arrington quarreled with author Jeff Jarvis.
Arrington pointed out his own investments in companies TechCrunch often covers—like Dogster, DanceJam and Milk—are not a conflict because he's not a journalist and he's transparent.
Jarvis, an associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, implored Arrington to take responsibility for his authoritative position.
"Journalists [today] have to make their own jobs,' Jarvis said. 'You are a role model. You scare some people, but you need to be a role model."
Arrington grilled Jarvis so hard on the lack of objectivity in journalism that Jarvis admitted a political bias: He had voted exclusively for Democrats his entire life, save his first vote, for Gerald Ford.
"You're that old?" Arrington said.
"Fuck you," Jarvis replied.