Buzzfeed has a credibility problem. That’s not analysis; a 2014 Pew poll found that Buzzfeed was the single least trusted media source out of the thirty-six outlets they asked the public about (including sites like DailyKos and Breitbart). Only 2% of Americans say they trust Buzzfeed to accurately deliver the news.
At the time, Buzzfeed PR cited their relative youth compared to other journalistic giants to explain the low levels of trust. I’d guess it probably has more to do with the fact that for most people, Buzzfeed is still that place where millennials read cat listicles and figure out which Disney princess they are. It’s a shame really; despite excellent reporting and multiple scoops (mostly from the indefatigable Andrew Kaczynski) throughout the 2016 cycle, Buzzfeed News’ image in the public eye is still hampered by its less than serious origins.
I’m sure the higher-ups at Buzzfeed are aware of this. Which makes it all the more baffling that CEO Jonah Peretti decided now was the time for a publicity stunt guaranteed to alienate half the country.
Peretti announced Monday that they would be cancelling a planned ad buy from the Republican National Committee because Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is Worse Than Hitler. “Trump advocates banning Muslims from traveling to the United States, he’s threatened to limit the free press, and made offensive statements toward women, immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and foreign nationals,” he noted. “The Trump campaign is directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world…”
At times, Peretti downright hyperventilates about the prospect of a Trump presidency, declaring Trump “hazardous” to the health of the American people:
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.
So Trump is as harmful as tobacco, a substance that kills half a million Americans annually? I’d bet good money that alcohol and sugary drinks will kill more Americans than President Trump ever would even if he were so inclined, but don’t expect Buzzfeed to pull its Coke ads anytime soon. This doesn’t sound like a CEO making a principled business decision, it sounds like a clueless celebrity virtue signaling to the hip crowd that he’s one of the good guys.
Editor-in-chief Ben Smith later sent out a clarification that Peretti’s email wouldn’t effect editorial coverage. Color me skeptical. The entire company receives an email from the guy who signs their paychecks clearly stating that it is the stance of Buzzfeed management that Trump is the devil incarnate, and you really expect that will have zero effect on coverage?
Even if Buzzfeed reporters really are the journalistic paragons Smith thinks they are, the damage is already done. Trump and his supporters now have exactly the ammunition they need to dismiss every negative story that Buzzfeed churns out. And frankly, they’d have a point: Buzzfeed is now explicitly an anti-Trump news organization. No matter who wins the White House, for the next four years they’ll be seen either as the outlet that tacitly backed Hillary Clinton or tried their best to defeat Donald Trump.
More to the point, they’ve given ammunition to the Trump’s campaign line that the media at large treats him unfairly. Buzzfeed isn’t just damaging their own credibility, their dragging down other media outlets with them.
If you asked nearly every other media executives about Trump off the record, I expect you’d receive similar condemnations and misgivings; it’s not exactly a secret that the industry is overwhelmingly urban-based and socially liberal. Those executives somehow manage to run ads and take the money from candidates they personally loathe every election cycle. They recognize that the need to avoid the appearance of bias and earn their readers’ trust is far, far more important than petty and empty gestures.
I suspect on some level, Peretti knew all this. Buzzfeed’s news sections are but a fraction of the whole; Kim Kardashian nude selfies and cat memes are the site’s bread and butter, and politically unengaged millennials are by far their biggest audience. Buzzfeed’s stunt will probably be met with eye-rolls in the journalistic community, but I’m sure it will do great among those who think that changing your profile picture is a serious political statement.
[Image via screengrab]
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.