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BuzzFeed Under Fire After Deleting Stories Critical Of Its Advertisers


BuzzFeed has run into a bit of a buzz saw. It has acknowledged deleting several posts on its website that are critical of current and former advertisers, and this is fueling skeptics who question whether strong journalistic values will flourish on the fast-growing site. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith has been accused of violating the site's own ethics policies in recent days. His accuser? Ben Smith.

BEN SMITH: What we did find in our early days is that we were deleting stuff all the time for reasons of tone, of - you know, of taste, of - you know, of oh, you know what? I don't think this quite worked. And that was our existing policy at the time. But we had a new policy, and I personally broke it. And so - and, you know, it was a total - it was a real mistake.

FOLKENFLIK: BuzzFeed has new rules against deleting posts. It's part of the company's ethics policy, created in January, after it had pulled more than 1,000 articles for reasons of plagiarism, poor attribution and quality concerns. Yet in March, a British BuzzFeed writer called Monopoly the worst game in the world. It appeared just a month after BuzzFeed had struck a partnership with the toy manufacturer Hasbro to promote Monopoly's 80th anniversary. The article soon disappeared. Earlier this month, Smith ordered the removal of a post criticizing an advertising campaign for Dove soap. Dove is made by Unilever, a major manufacturer that hasn't been an advertiser on the site in a year and a half. But paid articles promoting Unilever products can still be found on the site. Ben Smith says the company's editors are still learning on the job.

SMITH: We're growing at different speeds, in different parts of BuzzFeed. I mean, and - you know, I don't - we don't pretend to have it all figured out and buttoned-down. But we're - you know, but I definitely learned about how to - how to kind of try to manage stuff on the site that I don't totally love, which is being a little more calmly.

FOLKENFLIK: That said, Smith says he did not yield to corporate pressure. Smith says he thought the snarky tone of those pieces was wrong for BuzzFeed's more upbeat sensibility. Keenan Trotter is a reporter for the smaller rival website Gawker. Trotter's articles forced BuzzFeed to review all of its deleted posts and to address concerns it was pulling stories at the behest of advertisers.

KEENAN TROTTER: I think a lot of people are sort of stuck on viewing BuzzFeed as either frivolous or something more like Facebook - like a startup where the most interesting thing about it is how much money it's making, how much money it's raised from investors and that kind of thing.

FOLKENFLIK: BuzzFeed has opened up bureaus across the globe. It is covering the 2016 presidential race closely, has built its own social media platform from scratch, and it also plays a major role on nearly every other social media platform, drawing 200 million unique visitors a month.

TROTTER: It's become increasingly clear that BuzzFeed is going to be and in some ways already is one of the more dominant media companies in the country and increasingly in the world. Their ambitions in terms of gathering and publishing news are immense.

FOLKENFLIK: Trotter says the site cannot accept credit for its journalistic aspirations and then sidestep responsibility for its mistakes, as though it were somehow fixing up a personal Facebook page.

TROTTER: There was like this key sort of lack of reflection about why they were deleting it. But also more crucially, they endeavored to make sure that nobody could actually tell that they had deleted a post. With the Monopoly post, they programmed their website to make sure that Google and other search engines could nnot find it.

FOLKENFLIK: Newspapers and magazines have wrestled with analogous problems for decades and are starting to shift their policies too, says BuzzFeed's Ben Smith. Some of these conflicts, he says, reflect growing pains.

SMITH: These were just questions that we kind of had to reckon with internally as they came up. We, to some degree, had to get to do it in public.

FOLKENFLIK: Smith and BuzzFeed restored the posts after conducting the review. From now on, Smith says, he'll point out articles he doesn't like, but they'll stick around. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.