US writers on the take: how demand for more media content leads to more corruption

Gigaom

Conservative columnists writing for prominent publications like the Huffington Post, National Review and Red State all received money from the government of Malaysia as part of a sophisticated propaganda plan to smear an opposition leader. Details of the scheme were reported on Friday by BuzzFeed and include a regulatory filing that discloses the names of the columnists.

The plan in which 10 columnists received $2,000 to $36,000 each to write about Malaysia was carried out by Joshua Trevino, an opinion writer and the operation’s bagman. Trevino himself, who was a columnist for the Guardian until the paper dropped him in 2012 over conflict-of-interest issues, received $389,724 from the government of Malaysia.

The Malaysian government’s goal was to discredit Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition leader and the target of a politically charged sodomy trial that was decried by human rights groups.

The upshot is that prominent American media outlets printed propaganda from a semi-totalitarian foreign government. While the scheme is disturbing, it is not entirely new; nasty regimes have long used Washington PR firms to spread disinformation.

What is new, however, is how much easier it’s become to place such propaganda thanks to online journalism’s insatiable appetite for content. Today, publications of every stripe are eagerly sucking up outside contributions to fill their websites. The contributions are tarted up with a variety of names — such as “expert opinions” or “guest voices” — but they amount to the same thing: additional content that is often free.

But in their rush to pump up their content, sites may be dropping their screening standards. Unlike like the New York Times, which has long had strict systems to prevent conflicts of interest, many online publications may not have the time or the energy to rigorously watch for bad apples.

In response to an email query, the Huffington Post offered the following statement: ”This is a clear violation of HuffPost’s blogging policy that requires disclosure of payments and conflicts of interest. As soon as we learned of this conflict, we removed the posts from our site. In addition to a very clear policy, we have a team of blog editors who are trained to spot potential conflicts as they review each blog that gets submitted. Posts are routinely declined.”

Jack Fowler, the publisher of National Review, declined to provide an immediate comment; he has since provided a response in the comments below.

While after-the-fact measures may mitigate the damage, it doesn’t change the fact that, in this wild-west clamor for content, it’s become easier for the likes of Malaysia’s leaders to ooze their voice into American media. (Likewise, some companies have succumbed to the temptation of hiring sock-puppet journalists to shill for their side.)

Overall, it’s perhaps inevitable that more content has brought more corruption to the media. The good news, however, is that the growth of online media outlets also affords the opportunity for more whistle blowers; my colleague, Mathew Ingram, in the case of social media sites like Twitter, likens the process to a self-cleaning oven.

The Malaysia episode also reflects an other example of how BuzzFeed, best known for cat photos and titillating viral fare, is rapidly climbing the serious media firmament.

(Disclosure: the Guardian News & Media is an investor in paidContent’s owner, Giga Omni Media).

(Image by Straight 8 Photography via Shutterstock)




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