BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith posted a response on Twitter saying that the previously deleted stories—which were critical of products and advertisements by BuzzFeed sponsors Hasbro and Dove—had been republished with an update explaining that the original deletions were “inappropriate.” Smith said the posts had been removed at his request and over the objections of the editors of the stories.
He maintained the previous day’s explanation, however, that the posts were deleted not because of advertiser pressure, but rather because of an internal debate about how the site should deal with opinion pieces.
“Both [deletions] involved the same thing: my overreaction to questions we’ve been wrestling with about the place of personal opinion pieces on our site,” Smith wrote in his memo to his staffers, which he subsequently posted on Twitter.
There are a couple of problems with the site’s explanation for removing the items. The first, which Smith acknowledged and sought to correct in his note, is that it contradicted the site’s “Editorial Standards And Ethics Guide.”
The other big hole in Smith standing by Thursday’s explanation that the site is “trying not to do hot takes” is that BuzzFeed runs a ton of takes that by the site’s own definition might be considered hot.
In a memo to staff after the original deletion of the Dove post, editorial staffers Peggy Wang and Emily Fleischaker described the reason for its removal: “[U]sing our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed’s voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn’t in line with BuzzFeed Life’s tone and editorial mission.” They went onto say that the section should “[communicate] our values in a fair and demonstrative way, rather than telling our audience how to think and feel.”
Again, the problem with that argument is that it’s completely bogus. BuzzFeed broadly, but also BuzzFeed Life specifically, has regularly written takes that “advance a personal opinion” and “tell” readers how to “think and feel.”
Looking only at takes about brands, I was quickly able to pull a number of posts that met Wang and Fleischaker’s description. Here are 14 hot takes on brands that BuzzFeed didn’t deem necessary to delete.
I emailed BuzzFeed’s chief of staff Ashley McCollum on Friday to ask why these takes were not considered hot enough to remove and Dove had been, and she responded by directing me to Smith’s latest tweet.
At this point, I can only guess why the above personal opinions about brands were acceptable but staff writer Arabelle Sicardi’s well-supported personal opinion—that condescending Dove ads consistently take advantage of body shaming while pretending to be above it—was deemed too hot.
One potential explanation could be that the takes about the “beautiful,” “inspiring,” and “powerful” ad campaigns had a positive tone. But that ignores the fact that a couple of these posts were actually critical, including posts on Chanel’s “Photoshop fail” and DirecTV’s “WTF” swimsuit ads.
Another possible explanation could be that many of the aforementioned personal opinions didn’t take much thought beyond labeling the ads with an uplifting or critical adjective, and the thing that is under debate is offering a take that is argued beyond words like “amazing” and “inspirational.” But that ignores that several of these posts were actually substantive. In the DirecTV post from February, former BuzzFeed staff writer Alana Massey makes a strong critique about the ad’s use of “stereotypes to mock devalue women’s work and their personal choices.”*
Also, the idea that the Dove story was too substantive is contradicted by BuzzFeed’s own initial explanation, which derided the post for not being substantive enough because it didn’t quote social media or “add to the conversation with something substantively new.” How Sicardi’s opinion was less substantive than this one-line post about how “Dove’s latest campaign will change the way you think about taking a #selfie,” or this no-line post about a great Axe ad that is unlike previous less enlightened Axe ads, is unclear.
That’s where we come to an uncomfortable possible explanation for the original removal of two of these things and not the others: Unilever, which owns Axe and has advertised on BuzzFeed before, has complained to Smith about negative coverage in the past. While Smith has said that he had “never based a decision about reporting on an advertiser’s needs,” the Axe post that Unilever complained about—not the aforementioned one about the “surprisingly amazing” ad—was taken down in its entirety in 2013 because it didn’t “fit with our ethos on the site.” Dove is also a Unilever brand, also advertised on the site, and also was the subject of a critical post that was removed (although, the Dove one was eventually restored).
Friday’s revelation that BuzzFeed had done the same exact thing to a story that was critical of Monopoly shortly after signing an advertising deal with the game’s manufacturer, Hasbro, made the Dove and Axe deletions appear even more damning.
All of which raises the question: BuzzFeed might not base reporting decisions on the needs of advertisers, but has it based decisions on the hotness of takes on those needs?
Update, April 12, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that Massey recently left BuzzFeed.