On Wednesday, commentator Andrew Sullivan ripped into BuzzFeed for the publication’s story on Elan Gale’s supposed encounter with an obnoxious Thanksgiving airline passenger. The encounter turned out to be a hoax – a hoax that brought BuzzFeed well over 1.4 million pageviews. Sullivan writes:
By gleefully running unchecked hoaxes, and then insisting that they really do care about truth, Buzzfeed muddies the waters still further. What’s striking to me about Buzzfeed is that they haven’t really sufficiently thought through what it means to deliberately deceive readers by running advertizing as editorial, or what it means to be both an instant entertainment provider whose success is measured in jumping on viral waves seconds before their competitors, and to claim to be journalism.
Sullivan goes on to suggest that BuzzFeed’s mix of pop viral material and politics is “unwittingly doing a lot of damage to a generation’s core understanding of what journalism actually is…and to any understanding of how journalism is any different from copy-writing.” And Sullivan writes that he struggles with even calling BuzzFeed a journalistic enterprise:
All I can say is that I don’t think they have fully grasped how being part of an entertainment/public relations site whose core mission is making money can in any way be compatible with the profession formerly known as journalism.
As Sullivan points out, clearly demarcating the difference between aggregation of viral hoaxes and reporting of serious news would “end their business model entirely.” If they fail to do so, Sullivan says, they will lose their “journalistic soul.”