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Summary:

Viral site BuzzFeed is under criticism for publishing a malicious attack on a cartoonist that contained major factual errors. Editor-in-chief Ben Smith has responded but the site may need to do more in the future if it wants to play in the media big leagues.

The Oatmeal screenshot
photo: Mathew Inman

Popular viral news site BuzzFeed this week slammed a cartoonist as an amoral hypocrite. Unfortunately, the story turns out to have been based on a grievous factual error — leading the cartoonist to issue a savage counterattack that has stoked popular anger at BuzzFeed and the author.

BuzzFeed quickly corrected the story, and editor-in-chief Ben Smith offered an apology of sorts on Tuesday — but the response still feels inadequate.

The incident itself, in case you missed it, blew up on the internet yesterday after The Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman responded to a BuzzFeed exposé titled “The Secrets of the Internet’s Most Beloved Viral Marketer.” Using a lot of salty language, Inman showed how the BuzzFeed author had based the piece on a fake social media profile that suggested Inman was a hardline Republican family man. Here’s a screenshot that gives a flavor of the response:

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 11.49.23 AM

Inman also slammed BuzzFeed’s charges that he was a wealthy cynic who used pablum cartoons and shady internet tricks to juice his audience. He concluded by revealing that the BuzzFeed author had been forced to leave the blog The Wonkette for making tasteless jokes about Sarah Palin’s mentally disabled child.

The back-and-forth has since gone viral, with the vast majority of media and Twitter types siding with Inman:

BuzzFeed has now responded. In a phone and email exchange, editor-in-chief Smith said he had reviewed the piece but had not caught the error. He added that BuzzFeed could not say at this time if it will continue to use the writer as a contributor. He also shared a written response to Inman’s claims:

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, and the complaints you refer to — which incidentally include a false claim that we pay by page views — confirm much of what’s in the piece. On a personal note, I think some Oatmeal comics are hilarious.

Smith may be technically right to say that the “corrected piece is fully accurate,” but this response does not acknowledge to Inman or BuzzFeed’s readers how completely the rest of the venom-filled story collapses when the error is removed. Worse, BuzzFeed’s only mea culpa is a short dismissive note at the end of the piece — an editor’s note at the top would be a better response.

While hand-wringing over journalistic ethics is often tiresome (see Sullivan, Margaret), BuzzFeed’s growing stature means it deserves a few minutes over the coals. The site made its name with funny cat pictures but is now a major force in serious media. In the last year, it has partnered with the New York Times to cover political conventions and launched New Yorker style long-form journalism. If BuzzFeed wants to enjoy the prestige of those publications, it will have to do a better job of owning its mistakes.

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  1. In an article I read this morning, I noticed that Ben infers Buzzfeed is a legitimate news site. The lack of fact-checking, personal assassination, and misinformation tells me that Buzzfeed is anything but. What the site is is the standard-bearer for everything that’s wrong with today’s social journalism.

    Buzzfeed and Mr. Stuef’s complete lack of journalistic integrity aside, the article was poorly structured and showed stylistic sensibilities I’d expect to see from a high school freshman, not someone who supposedly writes professionally. And lets not even talk about the ad hominem attacks loosely masquerading as “reporting”, which the author chose to include. This isn’t professional journalism; it’s a hack taking advantage of the broadcast nature of social media to grind a personal axe (and poorly, at that). Oh and talk about pot and kettle – apparently it’s okay to ridicule a child with Down’s but heaven forbid someone make a mistake and post an uncomfortable and ill-advised joke about sexual assault.

    Is it any wonder that social “journalists” today find themselves held in lower regard than their legitimate counterpoints? The bar has sunk so low, it’s shameful. There is no code of ethics for this new breed of journalist – and I use that term loosely – and quasi-news sites like Buzzfeed. The content they deliver is as shallow as their writing and reporting.

    Buzzfeed and Steuf should be glad that The Oatmeal’s rebuttal (and the disgust and mistrust they’ve earned from the Internet vigilante mob) is the only reprisal they’ve faced so far. I for one, will be avoiding Buzzfeed and anything written by Steuf, who is the epitome of lazy, sleazy, and untalented tabloid reporters everywhere.

    1. Buzzfeed has also removed all public comments about The Oatmeal (including links to various stories in the mainstream media) from its Facebook page. Open discourse about this whole fiasco is no longer permissable, I guess?

    2. The peanuts of CPM journalism aren’t enough to do proper fact checking.

  2. This article is stupid. I read the Buzzfeed one, and it was surprisingly insightful, beyond some false claims that were picked up and addressed. I think “the oatmeal” really got slammed. Mentioning “venom” and labeling some twitterers as “a vast majority” isn’t substantial journalism. Nice try though.

    1. Insightful? Beyond “some” false claims? Really? Sounds like the whole original Buzzfeed article was entirely false.

    2. “I think ‘the oatmeal’ really got slammed.”

      You are correct. Unfortunately, that “slam” was based on falsehoods.

      – MrJM

    3. stupid is as stupid…says, in this case. moronical, too. The Oatmeal kicked the shit out of little (actually fat) Stuef.

  3. I just feel terrible for Mr. Inman’s children.

    — MrJM

    1. Think of the children!

  4. As a regular reader of Wonkette I can attest that Jack Stuef while sometimes funny has shown a tendency for poor judgement in choosing his targets. This piece on The Oatmeal was just pointlessly mean-spirited.

  5. It really is quite funny watching the liberal illiterati eat its own.

  6. The story will only ever be accurate once it’s removed. Funny junk learned earlier this year, and now BuzzFeed is going to learn, don’t mess with The Oatmeal.

  7. Here’s my problem with this whole thing.

    The article was bitter, biased and inaccurate. Welcome to the internet… welcome to 21st century media.

    This is about popularity. Jack Stuef comes across very badly in the article as a nerd whose ‘exposé’ is that this popular internet comedian is actually a JOCK *omg* and a BUSINESSMAN *horror* and a REPUBLICAN *faints*. In other words, he’s not a nerd like you and me. He has a DOG. He has SEX. Jack Stuef fell victim to the idea that the internet is full of nerds in their mothers’ basements. People don’t care. It was a lame effort to begin with.

    The fact that it was filled with errors and poorly researched just gave Inman the ammunition he needed. If it had been true, it would have been harder to defend, and elements of what he wrote would have been very weak on their own. As it happens, Inman was right and he comes across not like an arrogant jock lording over a valiant nerd, but like an honourable guy being picked on by a twerp.

    When that happens, accept you’ve been stung and MOVE ON. Don’t come back with a snide defence and stand by your own idiocy. Guys like Inman were more popular than Stuef in high school because they were decent guys… he’s still a decent guy and Stuef is still a loser. You can’t expect people to grow up when you’re still acting like a socially retarded 14 year old…

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