On Wednesday, Forbes.com contributor Eric Jackson wrote a controversial post comparing the media attention that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gets to that of former Marimba CEO Kim Polese 15 years ago. By Thursday morning, Jackson had deleted the post and written an apology.
The incident raises important questions about transparency and Forbes.com’s publishing process, in which freelance contributors can publish and delete posts without input from editors.
In his story, Jackson wrote that Polese “didn’t deserve” to be on Time’s list of the 25 most influential people back then and that she was clearly “in the right place at the right time.” It helped, he added, that she was “young, pretty, and a good speaker.” He noted the similarities between Polese and Sandberg — “they both like(d) magazine covers and editorial spreads” — and shared this advice for Sandberg: “Maybe you should tone down the public appearances for a while and just keep your head down at Facebook.”
Readers accused Jackson of sexism, saying his post was “dreadful,” “ridiculous” and ignored all that Sandberg has achieved. Rachel Sklar tweeted: “Here’s your post, summed up: ‘Don’t get too big for your britches, honey.’ Here’s mine: Watch us.”
Jackson, who is founder and a managing member of the investment firm Ironfire Capital, told me in a phone interview that after hearing people’s reactions, he decided to change the post. He edited a few of the lines that people had criticized, then decided to delete the entire post Wednesday night.
“I tried to address people’s comments in the moment, but after thinking about it over a few hours, I thought the fair thing to do was apologize and take it down,” said Jackson, who admitted in his apology that he did a “clumsy job” writing the piece. “I would like to think that when I’m critical I’m being tough but fair, but … there have been times when I’ve written stuff and on reflection I think, ‘I don’t think I was quite right.’”
While some have applauded Jackson for apologizing, others criticized him for deleting the post altogether. “Apology is fine, but taking a post down makes it more difficult to examine & learn from. Unintentional sexism is still sexism,” Sklar tweeted. “I appreciate the intent in removing the post but once pubbed, w/ debate/comments, for transparency’s sake it ought to be avail.”
Coates Bateman, executive producer of Forbes.com, said he told Jackson on Thursday morning that Forbes would add the original post to his apology.
“We wanted to make sure that our audience and our readership didn’t feel like we were hiding something from them,” he said in a phone interview. “And we didn’t want the apology to pop up and have it be out of context.”
Bateman said that Forbes.com recruited Jackson to write for the site about two years ago as part of its contributor system. The system has its benefits: It has enabled Forbes.com to increase traffic, showcase a variety of viewpoints and develop miniature verticals around each contributor.
Contributors, who are asked to write about specific topics that they have expertise in, are given a considerable amount of freedom. They publish their own stories, and their work isn’t edited. But, Bateman said, ”We prefer if people consult an editor before they delete something on the site.”
He acknowledged that it’s “not a perfect system.”
“We’re still learning as far as how we handle these scenarios,” he said, noting that he can’t recall any other contributors deleting posts. “We’re building a model that we think is going to be part of the future, and we’re going to learn something every day. This is just another instance of that.” || Related: You can’t disappear your errors online anymore, says Craig Silverman (CJR)