Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, speaking at the Columbia School of Journalism, disclosed that he “hated” advocacy journalism instead preferring the theoretical (arguably mythical) objective journalism. A posture where reporters are to present themselves as detached and free from personal bias.
Start at 57:30:
ERIC HIPPEAU: What about the fine line between either investigative journalism, or journalism period, and advocacy?
BEN SMITH: Um, yeah, I hate advocacy. Partly because I think, you know, telling people to be outraged about something is the least useful thing in the world.
This is a particularly odd claim given that at the same time Smith was lecturing students at Columbia he was defending one of his most controversial reporters, Rosie Gray, over a piece where she presented a heavily biased and inaccurate story on Max Blumenthal, his book, and his family.
Some corrections have already been made to the piece including a semi-admission of poor research by Gray and Smith for posting an easily disproved claim that Max Blumenthal’s father, Sidney Blumenthal, was behind a controversial photo of Barack Obama. A mere Google search would have shown it to be an inaccurate claim but Gray and Smith seemed to not have the time or inclination to check their work.
This is not Gray’s first foray into hacky reporting. She wrote an extremely speculative article accusing one of the Boston Bombers of being involved in a triple murder with little to no evidence. She also wrote a hit piece on Mint Press News that heavily suggested the publication was an Iranian front organization, little to no evidence again. Rosie Gray is, at the least, a less than diligent reporter. All the more reason Smith should have been vigilant with research when Gray started writing about a journalist with whom she had had a public feud with.
Most editors who strive for “objectivity” would not have put Gray on this story.
But the problems go deeper than Gray. Buzzfeed has continually been under suspicion for engaging in very poor journalism. In another case a Buzzfeed reporter had allowed an anonymous government source to lie about the detention of a filmmaker at LAX. That controversy did lead to a more thorough correction than has currently been made to the Blumenthal piece. Buzzfeed’s association with the Koch Brothers also became a matter of interest given Buzzfeed’s willingness to bend the rules of journalism and the intense interest the Koch Brothers have shown in expanding their media influence.
So the question remains – how can Ben Smith “hate advocacy journalism” but be willing to promote smear merchants like Gray? Is bias completely unrelated to advocacy in Ben Smith’s mind? Surely writing an inaccurate negative story on someone you’ve been fighting with is closer to advocacy journalism than objective journalism.