By Ruth Conniff
Maybe I'm needlessly contrarian. Maybe I thrive on conflict. Maybe I'm just slow in teh brains from ingesting too much lead. Or maybe my spirit is troubled by the many thetans released on Earth 75 million years ago when Lord Xenu, evil ruler of the Galactic Confederacy, flew billions of space-folk into volcanoes with ships resembling DC-8s and executed them all with hydrogen bombs. Whatever my free E-meter personality test will reveal about my confusion, this week's outrage surrounding the Atlantic is, to me, less than clear.
On Monday, the Internet-tubes exploded over a short-lived Scientology advertorial (an old-school portmanteau of advertising and editorial, aka "native content" online) that appeared on the Atlantic website. Incidentally, the ad was meant to coincide with the publication of a new book critical of Scientology written by the New Yorker's Lawrence Wright.
Gauging from the abundance of ridicule on Twitter, one may have presumed the Atlantic guilty of a journalistic breach on par with Stephen Glass or Armstrong Williams. Rather what one found was an innocuous, albeit hilarious and ridiculous, Scientology advertisement -- a fawning ode to the leadership and accomplishments of Church of Scientology Chairman David Miscavige, quasi-masquerading as editorial content save for a bright yellow label that read: "SPONSOR CONTENT".
Mockery, like Boing Boing's pro-Cthulhu parody advertorial, was in order. Why not poke fun? But why the near-universal condemnation? It seems like a no-brainer, and maybe it's just that, because only a massive fool could have confused this advertisement with a legitimate news story. Is the typical Atlantic reader a massive fool?
Regardless, the Atlantic quickly buckled under the weight of criticism (from both readers and its own staff), pulling the advertorial, and issuing a brief statement which bluntly concedes: "We screwed up." But like most of the Atlantic-shaming, their own mea culpa assumes that we all understand how they screwed up. That we all recognize the exact nature of the offense is taken for granted. I don't get it.
As my own critics are fond of reminding me, I never studied journalism, and I've been oft accused of unethical behavior, so it's possible that I'm simply an ignorant cretin, or an immoral fool (don't tell Rothschild!) -- not to imply that every journalism graduate is a shining beacon of wise and ethical conduct. That said, I turned to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen's Twitter feed, hoping he could help me sort this out.
Perfect. I obviously need to get smart, so Dan Gillmor's piece in the Guardian should do the trick. Nope. It's a straight report that presumes the reader knows why running the advertorial was wrong: "But even as we agree that the Atlantic screwed up, we should give some thought to...." OK then.
Mathew Ingram's (@mathewi) piece at PaidContent.org offers no answers, but at least it asks:
"So what was the Atlantic's offence in this case -- was it that sponsored content isn't appropriate at all, or that the magazine didn't make it obvious enough that it was advertorial? Or is it that Scientology isn't an appropriate subject for sponsored content, or not appropriate for The Atlantic? Depending on where you look, you can find arguments for all of those positions and more..."
The bright yellow label marked "SPONSOR CONTENT," as mentioned, was glaringly obvious in my opinion. So is this simply about taking money from the Church of Scientology? The sci-fi "cult" (its crazy beliefs aren't as popular as other crazy religious beliefs) admittedly has a deserved reputation for abusing its members both psychologically and physically, overzealous litigation, and general slimeballery. People like hating on the Scientology, and they have just cause. I myself joined in '06 for an undercover report, and was fairly disgusted by a lot of what I witnessed. Few Hubbard-heads ever go against Scientology, I was told, because the church knows all their secrets.
Maybe the Atlantic, or any other media outlet, shouldn't take money from an institution that blackmails its members as a matter of routine. But what about taking money from an organization that poisons people's well water, fights any and all environmental regulation, produces unfactual propaganda and edits Wikipedia pages to its PR advantage, and is a prominent member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, thus supporting anti-labor, school privatization, and pro-gun policies (to name but a few Koch-approved positions)? And what if this organization had also been accused of torturing and killing peaceful protesters in Nigeria? Surely the Internet would explode if the Atlantic took money from such an organization, yes? Meh. Not so much.
Open up the current print edition of the Atlantic (which I hope I can write off as a business expense), and you'll soon flip to a full-page Chevron advertisement which boldy declares: "Shale gas needs to be good for everyone. We agree." Because everyone loves setting their tap water on fire. It's just cool, you know? Naturally, print is less relevant on the Web, but Chevron has a deplorable record, and no one's said peep.
You'd be right in observing that an online advertorial, or native content, is different than a traditional print advertisement. However, what makes one worthy of voluminous outrage, and the other worthy of silent indifference? (To say little of the Atlantic's past corporate propaganda posing as "objective" news, sans yellow label, under the byline: Megan McArdle.) It should also be noted that ad-blocking technology, and the need to generate revenue online, has pushed many popular sites like Buzzfeed to rely heavily on native content (all their horrible listicles with copyright-infringing photos of puppies in dresses and whatnot are sponsored content, but it pays for Michael Hastings to do longform work, so I'm not complaining).
I asked Rosen on Twitter what the perceived crimes entailed. "Candidates: not enough labeling, editing comments, taking Scientology money." We've covered all of these but the comments. Editing comments, as in changing what people wrote, is a fairly serious crime. According to Dig editor Ross Neumann, "all comments on Atlantic Scientology piece have to be approved by a moderator. No moderation on regular stories." It was pretty silly of the Atlantic's marketing department, which was reportedly running that show, to keep comments open on the post. Were they expecting HockeyDude82 to politely say nothing? HockeyDude82 likes hockey, and he says what's on his mind. Some people can't handle it, but he just doesn't care, man! Anyway, it wasn't quite as bad as literally editing individual comments, but it was really stupid.
It should also be noted that normal Atlantic content isn't a total comment free-for-all. I can't say for sure, because my inquiries went unanswered, but I'm fairly confident that comments containing links to, say, whitepowerpuppyrapists.gov would be quickly moderated into oblivion. Outraged?
Of all the alleged crimes here, however, leaving comments open on a story sponsored by a controversial religion, about that controversial religion, does rub me the wrong way. Despite the bright yellow label, and generously assuming that Atlantic readers are not massive fools, this is the one aspect that slightly blurs the line between business and editorial. People are used to putting in their two cent when it comes to legitimate news pieces.
It's a tad embarrassing, but running the Scientology advertorial wasn't wrong per se, or somehow worse than a Chevron print advert, but it was bad for the Atlantic. "Bad as in bad for business," as this Incisive.nu post, um, incisively describes it. Would there have been a giant Internet freak-out if it were Chevron payola about all the great things the oil company's doing in Nigeria? Or is there just something about the Church of Scientology that gets people so upset that they could divorce a delightfully egomanaical midget like Tom Cruise?
Whatever the real or perceived outrage here (not that there's a difference), we've come to an era when advertisers and marketers are thirsty for fresh and effective ways to cut through the noise, the ad-blockers, and the immunity modern consumers have developed to traditional advertising. For online revenue streams, this is the trial-and-error phase. Native content, display ads, pay walls, paid subscriptions, product placement -- no one knows what will quench that thirst.
And when I'm suffering from a powerful thirst, I reach for an ice-cold can of Lead Drank™ -- the absurd and ostensibly hip lead-infused energy drink I invented to make a point, and end this article by referencing the beginning.
Lead Drank™: Available at all durrpfell blaaarrrrghs near huuuuuuh?!