The Truthiness Is Out There

by , Jan 21, 2013, 8:41 AM
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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.

 

6 comments on "The Truthiness Is Out There".

  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: January 21, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.
    If off shore accounts could be audited.....the why would be answered so keep asking ad nauseum. Mr. Garfield, your exposition is a great beginning to unravel this fiasco.
  2. Michael Kilgore from FTABlog.com
    commented on: January 21, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.
    You make me proud to be an old newspaper guy. Although I would like to see that advertorial for sunshine.
  3. Melissa Prince from INSP Television Network
    commented on: January 21, 2013 at 12:30 p.m.
    Bob, you’ve done it again. ON THE MONEY. Ultimately what people want to see is sincere humility. Comfession with an attitude of regret. True sorrow over what we've done and those we've hurt. Authenticity. We respond to that.
  4. Claudia Caplan from RP3 Agency
    commented on: January 21, 2013 at 1:28 p.m.
    Maybe he meant "naive advertising."
  5. Ryan Charleston from Adpressive.com
    commented on: January 22, 2013 at 11:17 a.m.
    Speaking to native ads, this happens every time a new medium or innovative idea creeps into an established industry. Initially there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about what's new and then over time it all gets ironed out and considered normal. We saw it with the internet in the 90’s and then with social media in the last decade! Now native advertising? Native is not really not no revolutionary, more evolutionary, but seems to be a lot of misinformation and confusion about it's definition and appropriate use. The ethics of publishing and trusting content is definitely a concern with native advertising, but I think ad relevancy and user experience will ultimately trump boring, non-relevant, or obtrusive ads that ruin user experiences. This bodes well for native formats and social networks. News publishers like the Atlantic need to use native formats with caution- their business is to provide news, not form quasi-partnerships with businesses, governments, or religions to help sell their products. Just produce stories and serve ads, it’s going to be tricky to break that model for traditional news publishers. However, my concept with Adpressive.com, aims to be 100% native by year-end, and thankfully I can dodge the "trusted content" issue since my visitors are specifically there to see ads- ads are the primary content!
  6. John Casey from Carmichael Industries
    commented on: January 22, 2013 at 12:54 p.m.
    It looks like these miscreants are ready to serve in the White House and protect our rights. This reads like criteria for political promotions in the Gov-media complex.

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