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Why This BuzzFeed v. The Oatmeal Fight Actually Does Matter

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on December 11, 2012

“I think that we are more like the New York Times than we are like Reddit. We’re a news organization, basically.” —Ben Smith, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief

The New York Times, to its credit, and to our delight, goes out of its way to correct the most trivial of errors. In 2006, the Times noted how it incorrectly informed its readers that South Park‘s Eric Cartman ate a kid’s parents in a bowl of chili. In late 2011, the Times apologized for misidentifying a My Little Pony character, writing “It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.” Times editors have owned up to confusing a millisecond with a megasecond, and crediting an alleged terrorist with drinking mango juice when it was really a strawberry frappe.

If BuzzFeed, the self-proclaimed “First True Social News Organization,” wants to be more like the New York Times than a social news aggregator with no consequences like Reddit, then it might want to start by acknowledging not just its trivial errors, but its massive screw-ups as well.

Okay, get on with it, what’s the issue here?
BuzzFeed contributor Jack Stuef, who also contributes to The Onion and New York Magazine, wrote a nearly 2,200-word takedown of Matthew Inman after the creator of the popular webcomic The Oatmeal made a cringeworthy rape joke in the final panel of an otherwise harmless comic about his keyboard.

via elevatorgate

What happened next?
At first Inman smugly defended his joke, but then he thought better of it and deleted both the panel and his admittedly feeble defense:

What did BuzzFeed get wrong here?
Stuef, speaking for all Inman’s haters (and there are many), wrote this hatchet job without ever speaking to the webcomic creator. The piece, which has been viewed more than 70,000 times on BuzzFeed’s site, was riddled with startling inaccuracies, about Inman’s Republicanism (patently false), about his history as a search engine optimization marketer (exaggerated tremendously), about his fights with Reddit (misidentified), about his business plans (overstated), about his wife and kids (Inman is not married and has no kids) … about virtually everything. Stuef seemingly got more wrong than right. Stuef reached out to Inman, he says, but he received no response.

To be fair, Stuef did the real harm here, but appearing on BuzzFeed’s pages certainly warrants inclusion and comment from BuzzFeed at large.


How did Inman react to this?
Exactly as you’d expect from a guy who just went through a similar drill this summer when faced with a frivolous lawsuit. Inman was so aggrieved by this hit piece that he wrote his own lengthy response, breaking out his weird comic font to accurately describe Stuef’s piece as “so blatantly wrong it borders on being libelous.” It’s a pretty amazing act of self-defense, albeit littered with acts of self-aggrandizement and Woe Is Me! self-pity.

Harsh! Did BuzzFeed recant?
Not really. They put a blip of a correction at the bottom of Stuef’s original post, but so far there has no been official comment, tweet or statement from BuzzFeed editors or managers. Stuef’s position as a contributor, for now, appears to be intact. The “update” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface:

Update: A previous version of this piece linked to a profile that implied Inman was married, had children, and holds certain political beliefs. The profile is a fake. Inman refused to comment for this story, but posted an extended challenge to it on his website.

That’s … something? The level of complete wrongness here deserves more than a minor, stoic update following such an inaccurate screed.

What’s the score here?
For the most part, it’s a win-win for Inman and BuzzFeed (Stuef is probably the only true loser here in terms of reputation). BuzzFeed gets its page views and no true scrutiny because, like The Daily Show, they are masters of straddling the line between legitimate news/commentary and viral nonsense; Inman gets his own page views, major kudos from neutrals and the envy of everyone who ever wanted to write an epic takedown in their own defense.

This is yet another insular story about The Internet — why should I care?
An Internet-watcher whose opinion I value told me he thinks BuzzFeed is right to let this die without comment: “If you go responding to every blogger / comic / whatever biting your ankles it just welcomes more of it … The Internet will forget about it by Friday.”

But that’s precisely the point here. This isn’t something to forget. Take Inman and Stuef out of this for a moment. This is indicative of a larger trend, a disturbing one at that. Online news organizations, HyperVocal included, can get away with murder because very few people hold “The Internet” accountable like they do legacy news organizations. And when we don’t self-correct, when we sneak things past our readers, that does an incredible disservice to the legitimacy of what you’re reading online.

Whatever you think about Aaron Sorkin, or The Newsroom, or Sports Night for that matter, the television preacher’s quote about accountability to NYT media reporter David Carr really stands out given the current climate:

I know when I read something in The New York Times that whoever wrote it had to be very good to get the job that they have … But I don’t know anything about the person who is blogging online. It’s an easy job to get. Anybody can be a blogger — you just set up a site and blog. But there isn’t the same kind of accountability. I mean, The New York Times makes mistakes — Jayson Blair, Judith Miller — but when it does, it’s a very big deal.

Even if you take issue with Sorkin’s blanket disdain of bloggers (and, yeah, you probably should), his sentiment makes sense. Why should anyone trust anything BuzzFeed writes in the future if the company is not going to take ownership of its mistakes? Where’s the accountability? Contrition?

Forget the cute cat videos and numbered posts about restoring faith in humanity (those are usually pretty awesome, actually), shouldn’t BuzzFeed’s legitimate editor Ben Smith and legitimate reporters like Zeke Miller, McKay Coppins, Rebecca Berg, Chris Geidner, Andrew Kaczynski and John Stanton *want* to issue a statement and run away from this? Does it not drag them down to be associated with this shoddy reporting?

Make a minor error, sure, your editor can fix it in the copy and move on. That happens. But basing an entire hit piece on facts and assertions that just aren’t true, you have a duty as “a news organization, basically” to be aboveboard.

What does Jack Stuef say?
Stuef issued a brief statement to the Daily Dot: “As for anything he said about my character, well, he’s free to do that. That’s his opinion.”

What does Ben Smith say?
Nothing publicly. No tweets. No statement, no correction. I emailed him this morning. I tweeted at him this morning. I have yet to hear back. Hamish McKenzie at Pando Daily has a quote and will run it soon has more.

UPDATE: Smith just sent over a response that he also sent to GigaOm, saying in part, “The original article had a serious factual error, which we corrected fully and within an hour of its publication three days ago, and which we deeply regret. The corrected piece is fully accurate. … On a personal note, I think some Oatmeal comics are hilarious.”

Haven’t you ever gotten anything wrong? Aren’t you just a whiny wannabe competitor? What’s your deal, dude?
Nobody is infallible. I’ve made errors. I’ve owned up to errors. Heck, I used to work for Lou Dobbs, I know all about media members having to correct errors in a high-profile manner. We all make mistakes. It happens. I don’t come at this from a competitor standpoint — c’mon, BuzzFeed does nearly 30 million uniques a month, we’re pulling 1/30th of that — but rather someone in the same industry who wants that legitimacy when we ask for it.

Hybrid news sites are everywhere, and we’re all fighting for page views. But we should, on some level, all be in the same fight, which is that online journalism can be just as essential as legacy news organizations. In this case, while this Stuef v. Oatmeal kerfuffle could strike many outsiders as just a small fight between Internet People, what’s at stake is proving naysayers wrong about their worst fears about all-online journalism.

New media personalities like Ben Smith rightly argue that journalism isn’t dead, but changing. If we keep this up — glossing over major errors and inaccuracies — then it might as well be dead already.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming, “11 Life-Changing Corgi GIFs That Prove Brony Journalism Isn’t Dead.”

Slade Sohmer is co-founder and editor-in-chief of HyperVocal. He is also co-host of SiriusXM’s daily “Politics Powered By Twitter” show.

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