ExxonMobil Presents: The Atlantic's Critique of Digg for Accepting BP Ads
Let me start by saying I should be doing much more to shrink my carbon footprint. I drive a car to work (not an SUV, but not a bike either), I fly on airplanes pretty often to visit customers and family members who live across the country, I buy products made in China that are shipped and trucked halfway around the world, and I eat food farmed with the help of diesel tractors and petroleum-based pesticides. I guess we’re all hypocrites at some level.
So I should go easy on Jared Keller, who writes for The Atlantic. On Thursday he wrote an article criticizing Digg for accepting ads from BP, “Digg’s Newest Corporate Sponsor: BP America.” (I’m quoted in the article.)
Look, I can’t imagine anyone on earth who’s not furious about the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. The deaths, the images of oil-soaked birds, and the enormous environmental and economic tragedy they symbolize, are deeply painful. For people above a certain age, they likely trigger traumatic memories of another gigantic and horrifying oil spill, when the captain and crew of the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed in waters off Alaska and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. The same Exxon (now called ExxonMobil) that sponsored the Atlantic’s website on Thursday, funding by way of ad dollars the Atlantic’s coverage of morally questionable websites like Digg that take ad dollars from oil companies that wreak havoc on our planet when their tankers or drilling rigs go off the rails.
I don’t know if Jared Keller knew that his article on Thursday was “Presented by ExxonMobil.” I’m guessing he didn’t. (Within a few hours of posting, though, someone at the Atlantic apparently considered the awkwardness of negative BP coverage sponsored by BP’s top rival and pulled the ExxonMobil ad.)
My point isn’t to defend the business practices of BP or ExxonMobil or any other company that advertises on Digg, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or Google (all of whom accept advertising from BP, ExxonMobil or both). Maintaining a free press is a complicated dance, especially in the current moment when “free press” has a double meaning: Free of government or corporate influence over editorial coverage, as well as subscription-free to readers. I support journalists like Jared Keller who call out media companies for taking money from corporations that are doing things we should be mad about. And I support the decision by the Atlantic (or Digg, Google or the NY Times) to accept advertising dollars from oil companies, car companies and the rest — because I don’t think it’s reasonable or even ethical to expect journalists to do their important work without pay, even if readers have stopped paying for news.
I guess my point is: Let’s do our jobs, whether as investigative reporters working for media companies, or their colleagues on the business side, without the high-minded righteousness. We’ve all got some blood on our hands.
UPDATE 10/14/10: Jared Keller at The Atlantic sent me a nice note and gave me his permission to share it with you here. He also reminded me story headlines at The Atlantic.com, like many other online and print publications, are often written by editors rather than the journalist who wrote the story.
I believe I owe you something of an explanation and apology for my recent piece, titled “Digg’s Newest Corporate Sponser: BP America.” I was pretty ashamed upon realizing that our own pages were sponsored by Exxon Mobile (I run the Atlantic’s social media operations and therefore, oddly, don’t spend much time on our site itself), and I realize how astoundingly hypocritical it is for me to pen words about the wisdom of selecting advertisers when the digital canvas they are to be published on is itself riddled with ads.
I guess I wanted to clarify that my focus in this piece wasn’t on the moral wisdom of running BP ads, but on the reaction from the Digg community in particular that I felt that day. I’m an active Digger and I participate in other social news sites, and the screenshot I posted in my post came to my attention when a fellow Digger emailed it to me. From my conversations with other members of the community, I gauged that they were upset not because of the choice in a BP ad, but because they had spent so many weeks on Digg v3 during the summer flaming BP in the comments section of posts. The sense that I got from these guys was that the ads weren’t right for the community, just as certain ads aren’t right for ours. Given the recent redesign, it fit into a pattern of miscommunication between the Digg team and the community. This is something I should have clarified in my original post.
That being said, it’s no justification for a jab the Digg team. I should have been more thorough (and self-aware) in putting together this piece. Like I said, I’m an active user, and I’ve stuck with Digg when others simply gave up and went to Reddit. Chance are, I’ll be around for the foreseeable future (BP ads or not).
Thanks for reading,