Ask the ethicist: Should BuzzFeed turn down ads for Donald Trump?
Earlier today, BuzzFeed announced that it turned down a $1.3 million deal with the Republican National Committee on the grounds that Donald Trump is "directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States."
In a statement, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti cited Trump's proposed ban on international travel for Muslims, his anti-press rhetoric and disparaging remarks about immigrants as chief among the concerns that led BuzzFeed to terminate the ad buy:
We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers. And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.
The Republican National Committee told POLITICO it never intended to use the ad space reserved with BuzzFeed and questioned the company's decision to accept advertising from Hillary Clinton, "a candidate currently under investigation by the FBI."
As noted earlier today by CNN, it's rare for a national media outlet to declare a blanket ban on advertising from a particular presidential candidate or party. But does BuzzFeed's stance make sense from an editorial and business point of view? Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on BuzzFeed's announcement.
Does today's decision have precedent elsewhere in the media industry?
Advertising is always accepted at the publisher’s discretion. Lots of places have turned down advertising, usually because the message of the advertising violates the principles of the community or audience the publication serves. For instance, newspapers routinely turn down advertising from Holocaust deniers; and when they allow such ads to run, they often run into a protest from their audience. Other news organizations have turned away classified ads for guns or prostitutes.
But this is a bit different. BuzzFeed cited its own staff as the most important stakeholder in this decision, not the audience it is trying to serve. “The Trump campaign is directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world and in some cases, such as his proposed ban on international travel for Muslims, would make it impossible for our employees to do their jobs,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in his memo. Indeed, I don’t think many people in the audience would blink at ads promoting the Republican nominee.
On top of that, BuzzFeed is rejecting all the RNC advertising that promotes Trump as the presidential candidate, not just the ads that espouse the principles that are morally offensive. That was a conversation when David Duke was running for office. But I can’t recall any publications of any significance refusing to run a political candidate’s advertising.
I suspect many publishers are sensitive to the power that they have don’t want to be seen as possibly censoring political speech. Of course, that was a much greater concern when technology limited access to mass distribution of political speech.
In your mind, is this a good business decision?
Not at all. Reports (which BuzzFeed has denied) have BuzzFeed struggling to make financial projections this year. That makes this either noble or foolhardy, depending on who’s judging. In general, most publishers place a very high bar on refusing advertising, as well as articulating a thorough process for making such decisions. They don’t want to be accused of censoring dissenting voices. But they also don’t want to be in a position of turning money away. If BuzzFeed has such a policy, they didn’t reference it in this decision.
Do you think this will affect the way BuzzFeed is perceived by readers? How so?
Definitely, but only for Trump supporters, who will now distrust BuzzFeed’s coverage.
What do you think about BuzzFeed's choice to cover its own decision about denying Trump advertising?
That was smart. It gave them a chance to explain themselves before the RNC could tell the story. It’s always a good idea to answer your critics before they lash out.
The Huffington Post last year announced it would be calling Trump an avowed racist underneath all of its stories about him. In your mind, does this decision send a stronger message than HuffPost's editor's note? Why or why not?
That was an editorial decision, not a business decision. I interpret that as the HuffPost vowing to not let its audience forget what it has determined to be the most important, salient facts about Trump, no matter what the story. I interpret BuzzFeed’s decision as a vow to not profit off of a candidate they deem to be harmful to their own staff. BuzzFeed may also believe that Trump’s message is harmful to the entire country. But they stopped short of stating that. So, HuffPost’s decision seems to be rooted in journalistic values, BuzzFeed seems to be rooted in respect for their staff.