Note to the President of The Atlantic Monthly

I don’t think Emerson was much concerned about his “brand.”

When you run a paid advertisement deliberately made up to look like editorial content (under the horrible euphemism “native advertising”) on behalf of a wealthy and powerful criminal conspiracy hiding behind a religious front – an organization that goes after critical journalists by, for example, poisoning their dogs – and in admitting the screw-up you say:

Our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser as an organization.

some folks are going to wind up regarding you as unclear on the concept.

The concept, in case you’re genuinely unclear rather than just having to run all your prose past Legal, is “evil.”

It might help clarify matters if you could just for a minute, forget about your goddamned “brand” and concentrate on the simple difference between right and wrong. Or stop quoting Emerson. Emerson, you might recall, was big on Truth, on self-reliance, on “trust thyself.” Branding, not so much.

h/t Jay Rosen, who offers a more thorough discussion.

Footnote Yes, tacitly censoring the comments to make it appear that the readers were taken in made it worse, but no, there was no version of this that could have made it OK. Lie down with dogs; get up with fleas.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Note to the President of The Atlantic Monthly”

  1. ” Yes, tacitly censoring the comments ”

    If I understand what was going on, for these disguised advertisements, moderation power over comments is actually handed over to the advertiser. So that it wasn’t technically the Atlantic doing this, they just gave the Scientologists the power to do it.

    That aside, we agree.

    1. As I recall, the Atlantic claimed that comment moderation was performed by employees of the Atlantic, not by the Cultists Of Clearwater – but that for the sponsored post the comment moderation was done by people on the Marketing staff, not by people on the Editorial side.

      1. Knowing Scientology, I wouldn’t rule out that the members of the marketing staff WERE Scientologists. That would make this whole episode fit their M.O.

      1. It is good to get clear on who exactly would do it. However, I would also say that handing comment moderation over to the Scientologists, who the editors could not possibly fail to realize would tacitly censor comments, probably counts as tacitly censoring comments even on technical grounds.

  2. Where does corporate speak come from? The lawyers? The branders? Obscure journo conventions? Insecure businesscritters who think it sounds grownup? Don’t they understand that normal folk, when hearing this babble, think “snake”?

    Politicians do much better at this kind of stuff. When they wish to say nothing much in particular, they usually manage to say their nothing in strong simple language. And many of them are good at saying the opposite of the way they sound. The content may be disgusting, but at least the tone is not ophidian. Bill Clinton was a master of this, but even George Bush had some competence at it. Even a Sarah Palin word salad is better.

    1. A “Sarah Palin word salad” is, to a first approximation, the most awful possible torture of the English language. I’d rather listen simultaneously to the whir of a dentist’s drill AND fingernails run across chalkboard…

  3. Our comments now appear to have a tag with the obscure name “Feature Bury”. Is this also an oubliette for embarrassing mistakes?

  4. I agree that allowing the Scientologists to place sponsored content was a big mistake, but it does lead to the question, which I have yet to see addressed satisfactorily, of when is such an advertisement appropriate and when not. I assume that both the entity placing the content and the content itself factor in here, but what guidelines should the Atlantic (or any other publication for that matter) adopt?

    I have to say that the distinction that Jay Rosen makes between “attack” and “raising an alarm” is somewhat specious. Since this mistake was published, for all the world to see, we didn’t need the Atlantic writers to “raise an alarm”; the issue was out there anyway. I’m not saying that the writers were wrong to object, and in fact I think that James Fallows hit just the right tone in his comments, but let’s not kid ourselves that Atlantic writers were acting like Paul Reveres here.

    1. I don’t actually have a problem with somebody running an advertisement for Scientology, especially if they have the sense to run it next to an expose of that ‘religion’s’ shady practices. But a good guideline here is, “If you’re going to run advertisements designed to look like your own editorial product, better make sure they come from people you want to be joined at the hip to.”

  5. I hate that “lie down with dogs” maxim. I’ve been sleeping with a dog for many years, and neither of the dogs I’ve slept with has given me so much as one flea. Get a different metaphor, please.

    1. Sorry, Herschel, but God says I have to come and kill you. Exodus 22:19 reads, “Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.” Nothing personal, you know, but God’s word is God’s word. Hope you don’t mind.

      I myself love dogs, but God does not; Revelation 22:15 says that they are not allowed into the new heaven and earth, excluding from the Holy City “dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters.”

      We must not allow our personal feelings to prevent us from doing our duty.

  6. I wonder how much money they got for that post (before they presumably had to return it). If they had trousered some truly enormous pile (say, enough to run the magazine for months) openly admitting it might have been a plausible response. Instead, they don’t even have the Jabez Stone defense.

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