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On BuzzFeed, Boogers and Ethics

Writing a story about someone else’s booger feature is no easy task. On some email requests I put a simple, bland, “request for comment.” On others, I went for shock value: “BuzzFeed’s booger post.” It wasn’t plotted. I imagined some might find it funnier than others.

On Tuesday night, BuzzFeed‘s Benny Johnson took Washington’s political and media worlds by surprise by creating a GIF feature about House Speaker John Boehner allegedly checking out his boogers. BuzzFeed Political Editor McKay Coppins promoted the story, even guided readers to it on Twitter.

The headline reads: “John Boehner Looks at His Boogers During the State of the Union.”

Who among us would have the mental fortitude to look away from a Boehner booger post? “It looks like a first-step by BuzzFeed into honest coverage,” said former TWT Editor and Public Affairs exec Sam Dealey. “After all, everyone — the Speaker, the public and evidently BuzzFeed’s reporter too, was bored by the speech and looking for anything even remotely more interesting.”

Boogers are interesting. But by and large, the editors and journalists around town that we interviewed opposed the booger post. “Dumb and dumber; political coverage as booger op? What next: beaver shot?” asked Washingtonian‘s media writer Harry Jaffe. WTOP’s Jim Farley also expressed journalistic outrage. “I believe it is over the top,” he said. “It would have been like showing video of George H.W. Bush throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister at a State Dinner. A private moment.  Would we show video of Michelle Obama’s skirt blowing up on a windy day?”

Um, there’s actual video showing Bush throwing up? As it turns out, there is.

And by the way, there’s no judgment here. We’ve written about everything from Larry King passing gas on air and a journo popping a zit at a party to females showing ample amounts of cleavage and breasts on TV. Suffice it say, BuzzFeed can write about the Speaker’s alleged boogers if they want to and there won’t be any ethical bitching from us.

And yet we couldn’t help but wonder, is this, in part, the psychological result of our miniscule attention spans and around-the-clock reporting? That we now require boogers to grab our collective attention?

“Poking fun at people in power has always been been part of political journalism,” Coppins told FishbowlDC when asked to comment on the matter. “Dead-tree newspapers used to do it with political cartoons; now the internet does it with GIFs and memes. What actually struck me most about this State of the Union was how many other news sites were competing with us on that front. A year ago, we would have been the only ones GIFing Marco Rubio’s reach for the water bottle; this year we were racing with The Atlantic‘s Twitter feed.”

But some journalists thought BuzzFeed had slipped beneath themselves. “That’s certainly a headline you don’t see every day,” said a longtime Washington editor who preferred to remain anonymous. “But regardless, this is over the line. A classic example of something that gets hits, but is in poor taste. The post appeals to the 10-year-old in all of us, and that’s not a good thing. BuzzFeed is better than this.”

A cable news insider agreed, saying, “I think it’s a tacky and juvenile post that undermines the legitimacy of BuzzFeed’s actual reporting and the journalism industry as a whole.  If that’s what it takes to grab eyeballs these days, I need to start looking into a new profession.”

The Washington Examiner‘s Executive Editor Stephen Smith took a more seasoned, business-minded approach, saying, “Schoolboy humor aimed at BuzzFeed’s demographic, but not appropriate for mature audiences.” And PBS Political Director Christina Bellantoni cautioned against reading too much into GIFs. “It’s BuzzFeed doing what it does well, but I would say that GIFS are a little misleading,” she said. “If it was video you’d have a better sense of how quickly this supposed peek actually happened. Perhaps it’s a teaching moment like Sebelius’ elbow?” (During a White House presser with Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius, NBC’s Chuck Todd sneezed, causing her to teach him how to properly sneeze into his elbow so as to not spread germs.)

Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees a potential danger to items such as the booger feature. “Things like this are funny, but it’s not what we train reporters to do,” he said in a phone interview with FBDC. “We want to train our reporters to write well and treat information ethically. But we also teach them the tools they need to develop a brand about themselves. We force them to start thinking about who they are and what they want to be known for. We don’t want to churn out a bunch of Ezra Kleins or a bunch of BuzzFeed GIF makers. Some media outlets want to brand themselves as a place that is known for joking about the latest political news. But that becomes dangerous. It drives traffic, but it’s influence is fleeting. It wasn’t like they were just attacking one side, but it was all silly season.” Still he admits, “I got way more links to that stuff than traditional reporting on what the President said and what’s likely to happen next in Congress.”

The Daily Caller‘s media writer, Matt Lewis, who also writes a column for The Week, had a mixed response on BuzzFeed‘s boogers. “On the humorous side, I would quote the great George Carlin, who said: ‘I think Kleenex ought to have little targets on them. Wouldn’t that be a good idea? Little bulls-eyes right in the middle of the Kleenex. Make it kind of sporty when you’re with you friends. KKKkkkkoooott! Look Dave, an 85!’” Lewis wrote by email.

On the serious side, he added,  “I would only ask the person who noticed (and then made the editorial decision to post) this: Is this what you want your journalism career to be about?”

But his colleague, TV writer Jeff Poor, had a totally different reaction. He had no squabbles with BuzzFeed covering Boehner’s alleged boogers, but what about Vice President Joe Biden digging for gold? “I’m glad to see Ben Smith and his merry band of Internet marauders are broadening BuzzFeed as more than a platform for cat slide shows and animated GIF images of Taylor Swift at the Grammys,” Poor said. “However, I did miss the same extensive analysis of Joe Biden picking his nose in last year’s State of the Union. But I am glad that someone is filling that void on the Internet.”

Breitbart.com editor John Nolte also jumped on the partisan media bandwagon, saying, “The media has devolved to such a point that Republicans now have to execute everything flawlessly in order to avoid the media turning ‘the whatever’ into THE story,” he wrote by email. “By focusing on nonsense, this is how the media attempts to bedevil us, distract away from our message, and make us look unattractive and incompetent.”

Nolte continues, “Boogers, water, rape, ‘What about your gaffes!’ – all part of an overall partisan political tactic the media engages in —and one at which they are very, very skilled.”

Lets get this straight. If this was Biden’s boogers, would BuzzFeed still have run with it? Is there even a distinction between Republican and Democratic snot?

On and on, industry insiders lurched between the larger view of journalism and web traffic. Brad Phillips, a media expert who writes the “Mr. Media Training” blog, remarked, “On one hand, BuzzFeed’s success shows that they know what their audience likes and how to attract page views. On the other hand, do these two talented writers really have nothing more substantive to discuss than whether or not the Speaker of the House blew his nose?”

Phillips says for his blog, he draws the line at whether the person’s actions impacted their communication. “Marco Rubio’s awkward water grab did get in the way of his effectiveness, so that seemed worth noting,” he said. “But noting that Boehner took a brief look at his tissue is the type of hazing more typically found in junior high school locker rooms.”

Whatever subject line I chose, Washington journalists returned the email, but not everyone agreed to comment or would comment on the record. One longtime journalist wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole and offered money in exchange for me not asking this question. “I will give you $1 million if you don’t ask me to comment on this. Possibly $2 million,” the person joked. When I pushed, the individual wrote, “$5 million?”

Sold.

If you haven’t seen the BuzzFeed booger post, watch here.


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