Can Vice Be Trusted?

Vice_Logo.svgWashington Post long-time media reporter Paul Farhi today takes to task millennials’ favorite media empire Vice for allegedly modifying or expunging news stories in order to placate or avoid embarrassment for its advertisers. He wrote:

“But there’s another side to Vice’s pace-setting journalism and dramatic business rise. At times, the company has blurred the lines between reporting and advertising. It has removed or altered some of its work after advertisers complained that the material put them in an unflattering light. On at least two occasions, it wove documentary footage into promotions for advertisers. In another instance, a months-long investigative project was killed, apparently out of concern about its effect on a major sponsor.”

Here’s Vice’s curiously curt response:

“Vice declined to discuss its editorial policies. A spokesman, Jake Goldman, dismissed the reporting in this article as ‘old or inaccurate [with] absolutely no bearing on how we operate today.’ He declined further comment.”

The idea that this relatively new “international multimedia colossus,” as Mr. Farhi describes Vice, has violated traditional church & state boundaries separating editorial and advertising is almost laughable given how rampant the practice has become across virtually every other ad-driven news organization in existence today. I can’t think of a media outlet that hasn’t given such consideration to advertisers or sponsors in light of the precarious revenue shortfalls they’ve endured in recent years.

It’s no secret that the glossies owned by Hearst or Condé Nast have long bartered editorial coverage or placement for their top advertisers. And then there’s the explosion of sponsored content and native advertising and the fact that these paid stories are often indistinguishable from news in the eyes of readers.

Last fall, Contently posted a piece titled “Study: Article or Ad? When It Comes to Native, No One Knows,” which concluded:

“But our findings show that no matter what steps publishers have taken, there is still significant confusion on the part of readers as to what constitutes an article and what constitutes an ad.”

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Cost in 2015 for a “Native Advertising” Campaign

Four years ago, I penned a piece on the crumbling of media’s church & state.  In his piece today and to his credit, Mr. Farhi secured comments from several of those leading the digital rebirth and sustainability of news media, each of whom professed their adherence to good journalistic practices:

Lockhart Steele, editorial director of Vox Media, who said “never change coverage at the whim of an advertiser.”

Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, cited Buzzfeed’s editorial standards, which “maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content. The work of reporters, writers, and editors is entirely independent of our ad salespeople and their clients.”

Still, is it such an egregious violation of the viewers’ trust for Vice to have blurred out the logos of its sponsors’ Nike and Budweiser on the shirts or hats of Ku Klux Klansmen in a documentary? Apparently so, according to longtime executive producer of ABC’s “Nightline” Tom Bettag:

“For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Vice would have done that,” he said. 

Then there was Vice’s apparent decision to expunge a comedic piece about another big advertiser, Axe, in which the comedian called the product “the preferred deodorant for date-rapists.”

I have long supported and advocated for the sanctity of journalism in an era when private, commercially driven entities and advocacy groups are firmly entrenched in the “media” game. Then again, I’m an old-timer, like Messrs. Farhi and Bettag, who grew up trusting branded news organizations to do the right thing.  I’m just not certain that today’s emerging “news” consumers — and the media that cater to them — could care less.

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