The Truthiness Is Out There
This was the week of not quite apologizing enough.
Lance Armstrong appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network to explain 20 years of cheating, lying and cruel personal destruction of his truthful critics. He repeatedly said he was sorry for his conduct, but left the distinct impression that he was sorry mainly for getting caught. And his claim that he did not force his teammates into doping, among other continued denials, sounds like a crock.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o named the supposed hoaxer who created the fake Lennay Kekua persona who e-romanced the football star before tragically dying, and even before actually living. Te'o's story can be proved or disapproved in about 5 minutes with a peek at his cell phone records, yet university officials have not been curious enough to look at them. Nor did they refute two years of false stories about the star-crossed lovers until at least a week after learning of the hoax.
Yet the most shocking non-apology apology was buried in the avalanche of coverage about the disgraced athletes. The true disgrace belongs to Atlantic President M. Scott Havens, whose memo to colleagues about the magazine's ill-conceived online advertorial from the Church of Scientology fails just about every test of honesty, judgment and simple common sense.
First some background: A week ago, theatlantic.com published an advertorial from the Church of Scientology titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” It was, ahem, as advertised -- a rundown of the organization's many bright accomplishments. The story did not mention its history of violence, psychological abuse and fraud, but did squeeze David Miscavige's name into 12 of the 15 paragraphs.
There were only two details in the layout that distinguished this puffery from actual Atlantic editorial: a sans serif font for the headline, and two words in a small yellow box above the headline reading: "Sponsor Content." Otherwise it looked exactly like everything else on the site. For good measure, reader comments critical of Scientology were eradicated. Eventually, journalists noticed the advertorial and shamed Atlantic into taking it down. The magazine offered an initial mealy-mouthed apology, followed four days later by Havens’ memo. Permit me to empty some of the larger pails of hogwash.
We ran a “native advertising” campaign for a new advertiser that, while properly labeled as Sponsor Content, was in my opinion inconsistent with the strategy and philosophy for which this program is intended.
“Native advertising?” Euphemisms almost always mean to sugar coat the distasteful truth. It was an advertorial. He should call a thing by its name. Furthermore, it was certainly not properly labeled. Basic journalism ethics demand that such material be published in a way to distinguish it completely from the editorial matter surrounding it. That means different body font, different headline fonts, different column width, different everything -- plus the words “paid advertising supplement” printed prominently and often.
Quite simply, we did not have clearly established digital advertising guidelines and policies in place, and when you're innovating in a new territory without standardized guidelines (we're not alone in the industry on this issue, by the way), mistakes can happen.
Quite simply, that's bullshit. The determination not to trick readers is in no way “new territory.” In pixels or in print, the rules concerning advertorials have been etched in the canons of ethics for decades. There is nothing about digital publishing that would render any of those rules obsolete.
To be clear, our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser as an organization.
Oh, is that so? True enough, this would have been a sleazy stunt whether the advertorial were for Doctors Without Borders or Toys for Tots or sunshine. But why in the world would Atlantic take money from the Church of Scientology, which shares all the worst qualities of a cult, a Ponzi scheme and a sadistic security state? Why would any legitimate news organization forge a business relationship with an entity that has spent decades denouncing, stalking, harassing, suing and otherwise threatening authors and news organizations courageous enough to document its sordid activities?
It seems fitting to quote one of our founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
Noted, Scott -- so what would Emerson have to say about this sorry episode? First you failed, then you rose up only to equivocate and snivel. What a craven memorandum to end a week you characterized as “a little rocky.” I must say, there's no evidence you are a little Rocky. You seem for all the world to be a little Lance.