It was nearly a year ago, July 17, 2015, that the Huffington Post announced that it would no longer cover Donald Trump in its political section, shuffling him to their entertainment division. “Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait,” wrote HuffPo’s Washington bureau chief and editorial director. “If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.” Suffice it to say, HuffPo policy has changed in this regard, though one suspects the folks on the entertainment side would have appreciated the traffic.
The widespread criticism of HuffPo’s move was based on a tenet of journalistic ethics: you don’t get to stop covering a candidate just because you personally find him offensive. But that move seems almost quaint now. This week, BuzzFeed shocked the media world by announcing it would reject advertising from the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, backing out of a previous agreement. This was something very different indeed. “The Trump campaign is directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world and in some cases, such as his proposed ban on international travel for Muslims, would make it impossible for our employees to do their jobs,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in a memo. “We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company. However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.”
BuzzFeed reportedly turned down $1.3 million, which might have been the most jaw-dropping fact of all. It’s one thing to turn your back on journalistic ethics because of your deeply held beliefs. But turning down cash? “I can't imagine turning down that kind of money for any reason,” Jake Berube, senior advertising accounts executive at the Daily Caller, told the Washington Post. “I'd literally name my first-born ‘Bernie Clinton’ for $1.3 million.”
It is certainly unprecedented to see a media company turn down any advertising money, particularly in the current climate. But BuzzFeed has always operated a little differently in this regard, particularly in matters regarding race, always an issue the company has been swift to push back on in regard to Trump. Remember, back in December, editor-in-chief Ben Smith said it was perfectly fine for his reporters to call Trump a racist on social media.
(For what it’s worth, Peretti himself, back in the early aughts, once wrote the very funny Website “Black People Love Us” with his sister Chelsea, now starring on the excellent Fox sitcom Brooklyn 99.)
But turning down money for ads? Even the Nation says it would run Trump ads…and, for that matter, cigarette ads, the exact parallel Peretti made in his memo.
So what’s this all about? Is BuzzFeed just being altruistic, in a characteristically new-media way? In some sense, sure: it's a grand gesture, like Smith's tweet, or HuffPo's ghettoization of Trump, and their audience is exactly the sort that would congratulate them for refusing to promote Trump in any way, even if he pays them. And Ken Lerer, BuzzFeed's executive chairman, hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday, featuring President Barack Obama, not exactly a subtle telegraphing of his politics.
But there's another new-media factor that's also in play. As I was writing this story, BuzzFeed’s front page had the following story in the lower left hand corner: “11 Horrifying Bathroom Facts Told By Something Cute?” That’s an ad. It looks like a story, and if you click the link, its design is just like any other BuzzFeed story. Its byline is “Scrubbing Bubbles, Brand Publisher.” It has a bunch of GIFs like a BuzzFeed piece. It’s designed to be BuzzFeed-y. But it’s an ad.
Now, native advertising is hardly a surprise anymore, but it’s not like Scrubbing Bubbles—or PetSafe, or Brooks Running, or Brita, or Geico—has a whole staff of people who just write BuzzFeed posts all day. These are created largely by BuzzFeed’s ad department.
If the Nation runs an ad on its site, it just takes the ad, throws it up there and forgets about it. But BuzzFeed does not work this way. It doesn’t accept banner ads, which means, as explained to me on Twitter by Keith R. Hernandez, president of the Slate Group, there’s a whole gaggle of BuzzFeed staff involved.
This is not simply a matter of putting in an ad and walking away. BuzzFeed staff has to work with a client to craft their message in BuzzFeed language, so it will look like a BuzzFeed story. As Slate economic writer Jordan Weissman put it, accepting an ad agreement with Trump requires BuzzFeed ad staffers to work with a “toxic client.” Now, you can argue that calling one of the two human beings with a chance to become the next president a “toxic client” is inherently a subjective, political statement, and I’d agree with you. But it’s not just a matter of saying, “no thanks” to some boxy ad through Google AdWords.
It is one thing for BuzzFeed to ask ad copy writers to write a “24 Tweets That Will Make You Thirsty” post for Brita. It is quite another to ask them to write, purely as a hypothetical, “24 Reasons Muslims Shouldn’t Be Allowed in the United States” for the Trump campaign. The level of separation we are used to from “publisher” and “advertising client” is very different at BuzzFeed than it is as most publications. At the New York Times, an RNC ad can run without much connection to the news coverage that surrounds it. By design, this is not the case at BuzzFeed.
This is not to criticize the journalism BuzzFeed does on a daily basis; the exact opposite in fact. (The idea, back in the early days, that BuzzFeed covering news was somehow inherently absurd seems like the dumbest thing in the world now.) Rather, the issue is about how the news gets paid for.
What Peretti was facing, if he had gone through with the deal, was an uproar when, as would inevitably happen, an RNC/Trump post ended up bouncing around Facebook a million times with a headline like “How The Wall’s Going to Be Built, In These 24 GIFs.” This post would look just like every other BuzzFeed piece, other than that “Brand Publisher” byline, and hey, who looks at bylines anyway? He would have been asking his copy writers to write political copy, and host it on his site. The RNC isn’t PetSafe, and Trump definitely isn’t Scrubbing Bubbles. BuzzFeed lives on native advertising. Usually it isn’t too much of a problem. But political advertising as native advertising can cause an endless cavalcade of problems.
The upside of your native advertising looking like your editorial is that advertisers will pay more money for it. The downside is that, well, it looks like your editorial. This is an ethical conundrum that dead-tree journalism didn’t have to face in quite the same way. Peretti may have turned down $1.3 million. But down the line, I bet he saved himself a lot more.
—Will Leitch reports for Bloomberg Politics on the intersection of politics and media.