Remember the old song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”? The chorus goes like this: “You don’t tug on superman’s cape, You don’t spit into the wind, You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger, And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
One of the lessons we learned last year is that what goes for “Jim” likely also goes for Peter Thiel, who put Gawker out of business and is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s leading supporters.
BuzzFeed, which is well known for click baiting, decided to publish a controversial dossier about Trump that includes some disgusting material. It wasn’t published before because none of the other news services or any of the intelligence services could validate it.
Without validation, it is a poster child for both libel and retaliation. So, in exchange for some impressive Web traffic, BuzzFeed got on both Thiel’s and Trump’s radar as a problem to be fixed.
Recall when WikiLeaks pissed off the Obama administration? The head of that organization had to take up residence in an embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden — where he might face jail time on what he claims are trumped-up sexual assault charges — as well as possible extradition to the United States. And Julian Assange never published the kind of thing about Obama that BuzzFeed just did about Trump.
It may not be a question of whether BuzzFeed is going to go out of business but when. Clearly, there is some irony here, given Trump’s own prior focus on the birther issue, but going from questioning a birth certificate to claiming aknown germaphobe (Trump won’t even push elevator buttons) likes engaging in so-called “water sports” is, to put it mildly, a huge jump. This is an example of putting tactics before strategy — something that can, and often does, end companies.
I’ll close with my product of the week: Teforia, an automated tea maker that is wicked expensive but will make the best tea you’ve ever tasted.
One of the big problems that occurred when we moved from print and TV news to Internet news was the need to chase eyeballs. Revenue shifted from subscriptions and classified ads to ads on Web pages, and became linked to the number of people who read an article like this one.
That shift led the folks who were successful at making the transition to focus on ever-more-controversial topics, write specifically for defined groups (like Democrats or Republicans), and engage in some pretty unethical practices — like link baiting and click baiting, not to mention publishing fake news.
Publishing fake news has gotten so profitable that a city in southeastern Europe — Veles, Macedonia — (no, I hadn’t heard of it before either) apparently is getting rich from the practice.
However, publishing fake news and tricking people into clicking on things that are false is highly tactical and eventually suicidal, because it destroys trust. It is likely to result first in pressure on sites to police it, and eventually in legislation that will force its elimination.
Eradicating fake news would be a great first step toward putting in place ever-more-rigorous censorship, because determining what is actually fake often is hard — and if a government entity is in charge, it likely would eliminate anything the party in power did not believe. By no stretch of the imagination would that be a good thing.
So, in exchange for some additional ad revenue, organizations that publish fake news are slowly killing off our freedoms, because the only way to address this behavior is to curtail it, and there is no absolutely accurate way to do that.
The Gawker Story
Gawker’s experience should have been a bigger wakeup call than it was. Gawker effectively decided to attack Peter Thiel, based on his sexual orientation. If there were a list of seriously stupid things to do in this decade, it would be to launch an attack based on someone’s gender, color, religion or sexual orientation.
This should be as obvious as saying that if you have a gun, you shouldn’t make it a practice to shoot people. Individuals who launch personal attacks have the equivalent of a gun, but news organizations have the equivalent of a cannon.
The movie Absence of Malice addressed this issue well, and anyone who writes for the media likely could learn something from it. The film speaks to one of the defenses against libel and defamation, and it showcases the kind of damage that can be done just to drive ad revenue — in this case, before the Internet.
By attacking someone as powerful, wealthy and creative as Thiel, Gawker inadvertently got into a war it couldn’t win. Its behavior eventually would cross a line — and when it did, the result was devastating, and its parent company, Gawker Media, was done.
Spread of Questionable Practices
There have been a lot of questionable practices of late. Take the leak of the Trump audio tape, for instance. Trump maintained that the conversation was private and that he wasn’t aware the microphone he was wearing was turned on.
NBC apparently couldn’t decide what to do with the tape, so someone leaked the thing to The Washington Post, which published it minutes before NBC released it. It’s arguable that the tape effectively ended the career of the reporter involved but did little or no lasting damage to Donald Trump, who was the actual target.
So, the act was ineffective, didn’t do much for NBC, killed a reporter’s career, and likely made a lot of folks NBC has interviewed in the past and would like to engage in the future very distrusting of that organization.
Two acts of very bad judgment by Trump and NBC don’t wipe each other out. Yes, it reflected badly on Trump — but his actions could be viewed as immature, while NBC’s actions possibly were illegal. How can you report honestly about bad behavior when your own company is guilty of worse?
Wrapping Up: The Death of BuzzFeed and Trusted Reporting
This soon after watching Gawker go under, the idea of attacking someone closely connected to Peter Thiel, the guy who took Gawker out, seems foolhardy — particularly given that the information released has not been validated, and many believe it to be false.
Even Buzzfeed’s own coverage suggests it doesn’t believe it. Given how much the press and Trump aren’t getting along, it might be far easier to prove malice than defend the lack of it. In short, for an impressive number of clicks, Buzzfeed may have sacrificed its future. To me, that is a very bad bet.
I think this showcases a worrisome trend in media: the willingness to forget the long-term implications and the social and moral impact of an act in exchange for enhanced ad revenues. If news services continue to make these personal attacks, don’t be surprised if their privileges get removed. That outcome, in the long term, would not benefit any of us.
There is already a ton of impressive irony with the Trump presidency. Let’s hope that organizations trying to ensure freedom of the press don’t kill it by focusing too much on ad revenue and what they have the power to do, rather than what they should be covering.
Finally, and this is a major point, this kind of behavior continues to showcase an excessive focus on short-term revenues while ignoring strategic risks. This isn’t likely to be limited to killing news companies. I expect it will be the most common reason for companies to fail this decade. So, Gawker and BuzzFeed could, in hindsight, be the canaries in an increasingly deadly coal mine.
My wife actually found this, and at US$1,400, Teforia is no Nespresso for Tea. This is an expensive date. However, if you like tea — and I like tea — but you don’t like the paper taste or bitterness associated with many teas, Teforia is pretty amazing.
It is kind of a pain to use, as the product design appears focused more on kitchen art than ease of use, and it currently works far better with iOS than Android (which means my wife is using it more than I am).
You can use Teforia tea and just scan the packet with the device, or you can use the app to define the type of tea you have and then let it auto-configure how to brew the best tea you’ve likely ever tasted.
It brews two cups at once, and the process takes about 5-6 minutes. I advise using an insulated cup, because the result is too good to waste and tepid tea is no fun. We have a very modern kitchen, and the Teforia isn’t just one of my favorite appliances but arguably the coolest thing in the kitchen, and thus my product of the week.