Huffington Post and the Epitome of Hypocrisy

mstory123 | December 22, 2009 in In the news,Online public relations,social media | Comments (7)

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I am steamed like I have not been steamed in a long time. I learned of this story while listening to the latest edition for “For Immediate Release,” but an article in Ad Age states,

“The Huffington Post has started offering marketers the ability to inject their own paid comments among reader comments and place paid Tweets among the live Twitter feeds the site assembles around news subjects and events.”

That’s right.  It appears that they want to parlay their 70 million monthly visitors into an opportunity to “double their revenue stream,” a stated goal.  Moreover, the Ad Age article quotes Ian Schafer, CEO of interactive agency Deep Focus as saying:

In theory, there’s more upside in doing it that way than in buying a banner ad. With those the default behavior is to ignore them. With this the default behavior may be to pay attention.”

So, Ian.  It’s better to deceive readers than to put an ad where people will know it’s paid ad? Nice.

WTF?

Let’s face it.  The Huffington Post leans pretty far to the left, which, as demonstrated by their popularity, clearly resonates with readers.  But there so many things wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin.  It’s at best, stupid, and at worst, deceptive.

Reason #1: Paid editorial content gone awry.

In the olden days, we called this paid media.  Sure, if you picked up a newspaper and saw a paid editorial that had the same typeface and font as the article surrounding it, you could figure out that it was paid.  Oh – and it was clearly marked as an advertisement, not an opinion endorsed by the paper.

Greg Coleman, HuffPo’s Chief Revenue Officer (note the title) states:

“An advertiser sponsoring a Twitter subject page around the World Series might interject with relevant baseball statistics — just to earn a little good will and brand halo, he suggested. Or a health-care company sponsoring a Twitter page around health-care policy might post a paid Tweet ‘to bring to fore the facts’ but in a neutral way.

Greg, you are either being disingenuous or you are an idiot.  What pharma company is going to PAY for “neutral facts?”  I can’t imagine a person in a marketing capacity for a company saying “Hey boss, I have a great idea for how we can put out our information — and pay for it — but that waters down our point of view.”  That’s a steaming load of bullshit that I am not swallowing.

Reason #2: Leaders should set the pace.

There was justifiable annoyance and even outrage when the FTC announced that bloggers would need to begin to disclose paid relationships on their blogs.  I blogged about this before, stating that I sincerely wish that the FTC had better things to do than to mandate common sense, but what precedent does this set when one of the leading news sites on the Web is now blurring the lines between content, marketing and public relations?  Bad, bad, bad.

Reason #3: Hypocrisy, plain and simple.

HuffPo built its name and considerable audience by leaning left, and often attacking essentially any corporation or entity that they view as overly greedy or disingenuous.  If you want to taint an opponent, put the word “big” in front of the industry.  “Big oil.”  “Big tobacco.”  “Big pharma.”  Read:  it’s wrong to make obscene profits when the little guy suffers.

Get ready to spit out your coffee.  HuffPo does not compensate its bloggers.  The Wall Street Journal noted:

“The initiative is already generating discussion, not surprisingly, on Twitter, where some users wondered if the extra revenue would go toward compensating the site’s unpaid bloggers.”

So HuffPo is not paying their bloggers while attacking:

Go ahead and read these articles — they describe corporate  greed and deception, profiting while the little guy gets the shaft.

So if you:

  • Blur the line for “paid tweets” as part of your revenue goal to double your profit this year;
  • Do so in a way that is highly suspect and disingenuous;
  • Do not compensate your bloggers, presumably the “little guys”; and
  • Still rail against “BIG [INSERT INDUSTRY HERE]?

it’s ok?  Just so long as the rules apply to others and NOT YOU?

Remember what happened when the Washington Post, in a fit of stupidity and greed,

“…intended to sell sponsorships to lobbyists, corporations and industry associations for dinners at Ms. Weymouth’s [the paper's publisher]  home, attended by Mr. Brauchli [the executive editor] and journalists covering the evening’s topic, along with government officials.”???  Pay for play in journalism.

They got busted.  Hard.

At what point does the HuffPo become “Big Online?”

Shame on you, Arianna Huffington.  You and your editors have wrapped yourself in the cloth of journalism while practicing the worst form of deception and hypocrisy.

Shame on you.

Mark


7 Responses to “Huffington Post and the Epitome of Hypocrisy”

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  1. Comment by Steve FurmanDecember 22, 2009 at 6:54 am  

    Mark,

    I’m not excited about this one either. But it’s probably a natural trial cycle the medium is going through, like paid inclusion on search a few years back. Hopefully it will be abandoned sooner than later.

    Steve

  2. Comment by David WescottDecember 22, 2009 at 7:26 am  

    Well, where to begin.

    First, I’ll disclose I am a regular reader of HuffPo. I lean left. But I don’t agree with everything they post there – in fact, I think a lot of the stuff they post there is downright ridiculous. For example, the anti-vaccination streak they clearly promote is absolutely shameless. And let’s just say I don’t consider Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin to be the deep thinkers of our time.

    Second, I think this is the stuff FTC was thinking about when it issued rules on disclosure. You’re right that this should just be common sense – sponsored content should be disclosed as such, regardless of the form it takes. You could disclose sponsorship in a tweet simply by putting (sp) at the end of it or something like that.

    For example, look at HuffPo’s “entertainment” section. It appears to feature video clips from particular shows regularly. I don’t know if HuffPo is paid to feature certain shows, but if they are I think they should be disclosing that.

    As for not paying bloggers, HuffPo actually does pay its reporters and editors for original content. It doesn’t pay opinion contributors, just as a newspaper doesn’t pay people who submit op-eds. Most of the bloggers I know realize they don’t get cash but still want to contribute there because they get their name in front of a huge audience and get ridiculous traffic from a single link.

    Oh, and that’s an interesting example you chose about pharmaceutical companies – they’re actually required to provide “fair balance” in their communication. That’s why most drug commercials rattle off a list of side effects.

    As for dumping on specific industries, not sure I see a problem with that – if nobody dumped on companies, I’d be out of a job… ;)

    But the left has its villains (oil, tobacco, Joe Lieberman) and the right has theirs (unions, trial lawyers, Barack Obama). I don’t really see a problem with ‘splainin’ your beef with someone.

  3. Comment by Ian SchaferDecember 22, 2009 at 1:47 pm  

    For the record, the entire thing carries a caveat of it being clearly labeled as an ad. Something I spent a great time discussing in my interview, but not everything gets written into the article. That is HuffPo’s plan, though.

    Can you argue that if something is clearly labeled as an ad that it isn’t worth trying for a publisher?

  4. Comment by Mark StoryDecember 22, 2009 at 4:15 pm  

    Ian,

    First, thanks for reading and commenting. I welcome your point of view because, as you noted, something that was not evident was that the tweets or posts or messages would be labeled as advertising. That makes a difference. And I actually thought that your quote was dead on – people will pay more attention to something (without realizing that it would be labeled as an ad) as opposed to, for example, a banner ad.

    My larger point with HuffPo is that you can’t have it both ways; you can’t criticize people/industries/”BIG Something” for making money off of the little guy and not pay bloggers while aggressively pursuing ways to enhance revenue streams.

    But it’s a big deal to be quoted in Ad Age (and you are right that editors/reporters don’t always let everything through), so you are welcome to post in this space any time. In fact — and I say this with all sincerety — if you think that there are things that were not represented accurately in either the Ad Age piece or this blog, type up an entry and I will be happy to publish it in this space. Unedited.

    And thanks again for commenting.

    Mark

  5. Comment by Mark StoryDecember 22, 2009 at 4:23 pm  

    David,

    Thanks for commenting – and admitting in a public forum — that you are actually a member of the American Communist Party.

    But seriously, folks, Ian Schafer commented above that the paid advertising will be marked or disclosed — not sure in what form. That changes the dynamic slightly in my view and I thank Ian for reading and commenting.

    But the whole aggressive revenue enhancement strategy while simultaneously railing against Corporate America smells worse than a Yankees Bleacher Creature in August. And I think we can agree upon Yankee Bashing any day.

    Mark

  6. Comment by Ian SchaferDecember 24, 2009 at 1:07 pm  

    Thanks for the acknowledgment, Mark. HuffPo should not be confused with classic journalism. It’s more similar to a publication full of letters to the editor (folks that write those don’t get paid either, but newspapers place advertising around those as well).

    Lets see how the readers respond. It would be great to revisit this down the road.

  7. Comment by Marjorie R. AsturiasJune 18, 2010 at 6:35 pm  

    Great article! Just for the record, though: most newspapers–with few exceptions, including many small-town papers–DO pay for op-eds. I used to write a weekly column for a small-town local paper and wasn’t paid the first few weeks, but after I’d developed a little following I asked for compensation per column and got it. Big papers like The New York Times pay hundreds of dollars for an op-ed.