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:
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:
I see Jack @stuef‘s journalist career has progressed from attacking disabled toddlers to attacking cartoonists.It’s good to have an arc.
— Popehat (@Popehat) December 11, 2012
— John (@Solimander) December 10, 2012
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.