This report was reproduced with permission of Central European News Agency
My name is Michael Leidig and I run an agency that has supplied thousands of stories to hundreds of news organisations for many years, yet this is the hardest story I have ever had to write.
It is the story of how I was brought to the brink of bankruptcy and my life turned upside down in a legal battle against a billion‑dollar company that tried to break me… and failed.
It started more than five years ago when online entertainment portal BuzzFeed published an article in which they accused me of being ‘The King of Bullshit News‘, claiming a number of stories from far flung places were “often” either “inaccurate or downright false”.
Our journalism includes award‑winning investigations, numerous charity projects, documentaries and books, and I have set up initiatives for freelancers like free legal advice centres and job portals.
And yes, my reporters will also write stories about two‑headed Chinese tortoises or indeed bizarre stories from any part of the world.
Guess what BuzzFeed focused on to the exclusion of all else?
That’s right, the bizarre and eclectic snippets of news that led to their scandalous headline.
It was enough to make my agency’s name toxic within hours as around the world, publications that previously trusted our news stopped using our material completely.
The BuzzFeed story was republished in other languages, they lobbied media correspondents and watchdogs, my Wikipedia entry was modified, and not content with that, BuzzFeed then turned to social media to spread their ‘investigation’ around the world.
And BuzzFeed was not just any social media organisation, at the time they wrote about me, they had signed partnership agreements with Facebook, Snapchat, Yahoo! and Apple for their news services to use BuzzFeed content. It gave them incredible reach for their stories.
It took me six weeks to examine all the many BuzzFeed claims, and by the time my 125-page rebuttal was ready, the Buzzfeed allegations had gone too far for it to make any difference.
I had become ‘The King of Bullshit News‘, and the only way left to fight was a legal case. That, in turn, provided evidence to support what I suspected – that this was a commercially inspired hit job.
But because the judge also refused to allow it to court to test the evidence, it allowed BuzzFeed to claim that its reporting was accurate, and that I was, indeed, ‘The King of Bullshit News‘.
In my research, I found that BuzzFeed and its editorial director Ben Smith had not just been looking for a commercial advantage by attacking me in his UK operation’s first official investigation, but had been doing the same thing in New York, using journalism to gain commercial advantage for themselves, their investors, and their advertisers.
The BuzzFeed UK story about me and my agency was simply a continuation of what had been happening in the US.
Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, was so good at using journalism to manipulate the message, that the term ‘BenSmithing‘ was even coined, which means that in order to deflect attention from a given matter, a story needs to be written seeming to report on the same matter, but at the same time downplaying the importance of the matter. Then, when anybody is exposed to the allegation, they dismiss it, believing they have already been informed in full.
A 2013 article in the New York Times entitled “The Boy Wonder of BuzzFeed” reported how for BuzzFeed staff, ‘BenSmithing‘ was to dance a clumsy version of the Funky Chicken – but the reality is that this misuse of the news agenda is no joke.
Manipulating news for any reason other than to tell the truth has no place in a proper newsroom.
When Ben Smith was quizzed about his name being synonymous with using editorial content to limit file to the truth, he had this to say.
You can watch the video here, or if you prefer, read the transcription below it:
Q. Have you ever heard your name being used as a verb, ‘BenSmithing’?
Q. What is your understanding of what that verb means?
A. I’m not sure I understand it clearly enough to speculate.
Q. So you understand that it’s used, but you are not sure of the way that it is used?
A. It was a term coined by some American conservatives to criticise BuzzFeed and me. But I wouldn’t want to speak for them in terms of what they meant about it.
Q. What is your understanding of what they meant about it?
A. You should ask them.
Q. Not for your understanding.· I am asking you?
A. It never entirely made sense to me, so it’s hard for me to communicate my understanding.
Q. So you don’t have an understanding?
(BuzzFeed lawyers object to the question being repeated)
A. It’s hard for me to understand what they meant, and so I don’t have a clear understanding. But you should — you should ask them.
But there is no doubt ‘BenSmithing‘, had made his editorial team very popular with advertisers, and attracted hundreds of millions in investment.
Indeed, Buzzfeed’s lack of respect for the separation that should exist between editorial and advertising was the reason BuzzFeed existed in the first place.
During my work on Buzzfeed, I found that the company was started because of frustration on the part of its creator Jonah Peretti at being forced to do traditional journalism at the Huffington Post. It ultimately ended up coming full circle with the realisation, arguably too late, that only traditional journalism brings in the money.
Peretti was at the heart of understanding the power of viral content when a chain of emails he initiated with Nike went viral.
The sensation turned Peretti into an internet celebrity, landing him on national television, earning him plaudits from the New York Times and Vogue, and delivering him consulting gigs with big companies. But his base remained the internet, and in 2003, Peretti co-founded the Huffington Post.
He was brought in to handle its technological back-end and he devised many elements key to its success.
Much of the Huffington Post’s content was aggregated from other sources or written by unpaid bloggers, but Peretti had a genius for propagation – building a huge community whose comments constantly refreshed the site’s content.
Its technicians mastered search engine optimisation, manipulating Google’s algorithm to land their stories at the top of search results. But Peretti was also eager to try out new advertising models, although he was also opposed by partners fearing that blurring the church-state line would alienate readers.
But why is this important? And what is the difference? Both native advertising and news look the same. Both are well written and infinitely shareable. But one has nothing at all to do with journalism.
The separation between journalism and advertising, often referred to as the church and state, has been at the heart of publishing almost since the business began.
Even a decade ago it was unthinkable to blur the lines between the two, but that wall buckled and then collapsed when BuzzFeed embraced the concept of native advertising – repackaging what was previously referred to as sponsored content, and before that advertorial. From there, this paid-for ‘journalism’ spread throughout the news industry, closely followed by the related disease of fake news.
Native advertising has become a buzzword on the management floors of every significant online news organisation, and native advertising was at the heart of Buzzfeed’s business strategy from the start.
Ben Smith however does not agree that native advertising is anything to criticise.
You can watch the video here, or if you prefer, read the transcription below it:
Q. BuzzFeed has been criticised, has it not, for running what it calls native advertising, which is stories designed to look like news stories that are, in fact, created by advertisers?
A. I don’t think I agree with the premise of the question.
Q. What don’t you agree with?
A. The second half of your question. We certainly have been criticized for many things.
Q. But not for publishing native advertising?
A. Your description — we certainly have been criticized for publishing native advertising.· I don’t think your description of native advertising is accurate.
Q. What is your description of “native advertising”?
A. “Native advertising” is advertising that is — that is — that comes in the same form as the media content you are consuming, like a television ad on television, a glossy page in a fashion magazine, or a list — an entertainment list on a quiz in the form of BuzzFeed’s entertainment content.· And that’s all native advertising.
Q. Isn’t the criticism of that advertising that it deceives the reader into thinking it’s a news story when, in fact, it’s advertising?
A. You know, I haven’t heard that criticism in a while, but we did — we certainly had people say that sometimes.
Q. Has BuzzFeed also been criticised for deleting things because advertisers pressured it to do so?
BUZZFEED LAWYER MS. BOLGER OBJECTS: I’ll let Ben answer the question. This entire line of questioning is wholly irrelevant to this lawsuit and a waste of Mr. Smith’s time. He can answer the question.
A. There is a — there’s one case I am thinking of that we were criticized, yes.
Q. Was that the Dove article?
The infamous Dove article he refers to concerned BuzzFeed staff writer Arabelle Sicardi, who openly criticised a bizarre advertising campaign by Dove, writing: “The soap manufacturer wants to tell us how we feel about ourselves. And then fix it for us. With soap.”
As can be seen in Sicardi’s post, neither her content nor her ‘tone’ were actually objectionable. Dove is a cosmetics brand owned by Unilever, a consumer goods manufacturer and at the time a BuzzFeed partner. And Dove sells beauty products by exploiting the insecurities its advertisements help to create – in this case, a TV spot in which women are seen choosing between a door that says “Average” and another one that says “Beautiful.”
BuzzFeed deleted the entire post and replaced it with a single sentence: “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.“
It was one of many examples of how Peretti, who despite profiting from the experience at the Huffington Post where the distinction between news and advertising remained, had still wanted to see it torn down. He noted at the time: “Huffington Post was very focused on being a successful media company, and so there wasn’t that much freedom to play.”
Peretti started BuzzFeed as a side project in 2006, and long before the Huffington Post was sold, he had shifted his attention to the newer project.
At the start, BuzzFeed employed no writers or editors, just an algorithm to cull stories from around the web that were showing stirrings of virality. In return for functioning as a sort of early-warning system, BuzzFeed persuaded partner sites to install programming code that allowed the company to monitor their traffic.
Indeed, my news agency, which did employ journalists, had clashed with BuzzFeed around this time for just that reuse of our content.
We discovered in 2009 that he had been using our stories without paying, and complained to BuzzFeed, with Jonah Peretti offering to remove the content but declining to pay.
He claimed it was part of his deal with my client Metro.
Like many digital newcomers, BuzzFeed, who were just taking our news with no credit or payment, were probably unaware that a vast chunk of daily news in the UK national press comes from small agencies scattered across the country and, indeed, the world, who earn their living by being paid for the copy they produce.
My friend Dennis Cassidy, the late president of the British National Association of Press Agencies, always described these agencies that include CEN as working at the coalface of democracy.
But BuzzFeed was part of a new era of aggregators that, at the start, made no contribution to the news landscape, while at the same time profiting from its efforts.
As newsroom numbers have been drastically depleted, and independent newsrooms of journalistic teams wiped out, the reality is few have noticed, because the vacuum has been filled with native advertising.
Well written, well researched and infinitely sharable, it gives the impression of the real news it has replaced – but it is not the same. Author and editor Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic, warned that media companies are just prostituting themselves by working so closely with advertisers and crossing the ethical line. He said: “It is an act of deception of the readers and consumers of media who believe they’re reading the work of an independent journalist.”
BuzzFeed, for example, was a prominent critic of hire car concept Uber. In story after story, the Uber concept was put under scrutiny, disgruntled competitors were given a voice, legal battles meticulously described, and several stories like the Buzzfeed story about CEN seemed to be little more than negative hit pieces.
Buzzfeed called it reporting, and even had a ride share correspondent, but it can be seen in a different light when it is revealed that Buzzfeed backers and executives were involved in various rival projects to Uber.
BuzzFeed investor Andreessen Horowitz was backing Uber rival Lyft, and SoftBank, one of the original financers and BuzzFeed’s partner in its Asian expansion, had invested heavily in Uber’s main rival.
In many of the articles about Uber, Ben Smith and BuzzFeed never disclosed these relationships, and as with the CEN article, there was no conflict-of-interest disclosure in any of the reports.
One example from its Uber coverage was an exclusive by Smith which claimed Uber CEO and founder Travis Kalanick had outlined a million-dollar plan to stop the press from exercising its right to free communication after allegations that drivers kidnapped, attacked, and raped female passengers while in transit.
According to the report, Uber planned a specialised task force to dig up dirt on “your personal lives, your families”, hoping to achieve what BuzzFeed called, “giving the media a taste of its own medicine”.
Clearly a strong story, but was BuzzFeed the independent news organisation to publish it given that Uber’s biggest competitors were likely to be the big winners from the backlash.
But Smith hid BuzzFeed’s relationship with the Uber rival in an 800-word exclusive written in the third person in order it seems to obscure the fact that Smith himself was the BuzzFeed editor who attended the off-the-record event at which the Uber executive’s remarks were made.
One person who was able to look at how Buzzfeed worked from the other side was Mark Duffy who was recruited to write for Buzzfeed about the advertising business and was fired after a year.
After he was fired, he wrote on his blog an insight into how BuzzFeed’s native advertising business works.
He said: “BuzzFeed is worth a lot of money, maybe USD 1 billion. At least, that’s what they told Disney when the Mouse came sniffing at their hot ass earlier this year.
“BuzzFeed is not worth lots of money because of its lists or quizzes. It is worth lots of money because of its branded inline ad platform—a version of what the media industry has dubbed “native advertising”—that helps its “featured partners” (what they call their advertisers) rack up Facebook share numbers with their ad posts.”
He then explains the tricks that they use, saying: “Just last week, BuzzFeed changed the layout of their ad box. Gone is the not-yellow background, replaced by a small, actual yellow box with the words “promoted by.” Thing is, when you now look at their homepage, this new box layout makes the ad content blend in even more.
“The main reason BuzzFeed’s ads blend in so well visually with the editorial content is because their three-column homepage layout is, very purposely, butt-ugly and busy. It’s enough to make an aesthetically sensitive 25-year advertising creative vet say so in an internal meeting, with the collective response being stares and silence.”
In his blog, Duffy openly accused BuzzFeed of blurring the lines between editorial and advertising too and alleged it does not separate its journalism from its advertising.
He wrote: “But really: How ‘seriously’ does BuzzFeed take the ‘separation of church and state?’
“During my 18 months working in their editorial department as an ad critic – what I was hired to be – I was emailed three times by three different staff account reps to “do anything I could” to help promote a new video ad by a then current BuzzFeed client. I was even emailed by Peretti to post about a Pepsi ad, where he helpfully included a suggested (positive) editorial direction.
“As I was still fairly new at BuzzFeed, I figured I had to do the Pepsi post, right? I didn’t like the ad, I didn’t hate the ad, I would not have reviewed the ad, but the fucking CEO sent it to me! I wrote about it, positively, and posted it.
“Later that same day, my post went to the front page, and there it sat, right below a “yellow” “featured partner” ad post about the same Pepsi video—written by a BuzzFeed in-house creative—with the same exact take on the ad. The headlines were even almost identical. Did Peretti know about the in-house ad? I don’t know. Ask him.
“Sorry, I didn’t save a screen shot of this rather egregious church/state violation, or the email from Peretti, because I don’t think like a scumbag lawyer when I’m working for somebody. But I did delete my Pepsi post, immediately. It seemed the Mad Men thing to do.
“I told my boss, editor-in-chief Ben Smith, about the Pepsi post and Peretti email, and he was quite miffed. But! This was not the only time Peretti sent me an ad to post about. He also sent me this interactive Old Spice ad, saying “a friend” of his had worked on it. I had already seen the ad, I even liked the ad, but I was not going to post about it. However, again: this was the CEO emailing me directly, so I wrote about it, glowingly.
“Old Spice was not a client of BuzzFeed’s at the time. But they are now. Coincidence? Or, divine intervention?”
I contacted him for this article, but he explained that he was not prepared to comment further, and his post appears to be no longer online.
Proof that this strategy was exported to the UK came when BuzzFeed’s UK writer Tom Chivers published a 1,200-word post titled “Why Monopoly Is The Worst Game In The World, And What You Should Play Instead.”
It started off with the words: “Monopoly is shite.”
It went on: “That is my opinion, but it’s not only my opinion. It has been reviewed by more than 15,000 users of the website BoardGameGeek, and gets an average score of less than 4.5 out of 10. People who play board games think it sucks. So does James Bond.”
BuzzFeed deleted the post within a day. Its URL redirected to a bare-bones page indicating that “this post was removed at the request of the author” and BuzzFeed also took the extraordinary step of adding the post’s URL to its robots.txt directory, a text file website administrators use to instruct web crawlers, such as Google and the Internet Archive, what not to index (e.g. any password-protected pages).
This means, as the website Techno Guido explained, that Google was likely prevented from generating a cached copy of the original Monopoly post.
More importantly, it means that the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine does not possess, and is prevented from storing, a copy of the post, since its crawler retroactively deletes all copies of any URLs included in a site’s robots.txt file.
BuzzFeed was attempting to manipulate the internet to hide what it had done. The Monopoly post was effectively invisible to any program that keeps track of content hosted by third-party sites.
However, after it was discovered anyway and went viral on the Internet, it was reinstated with the following message at the top: “UPDATE: This post was inappropriately deleted amid an ongoing conversation about how and when to publish personal opinion pieces on BuzzFeed. The deletion was in violation of our editorial standards and the post has been reinstated on Apr 10, 2015, at 9:52 p.m.”
So as the deletion of Tom’s post shows, Buzzfeed had exported its formula to the UK, where it was keen to gain a foothold in what is arguably one of the most competitive media landscapes in the world.
The BuzzFeed editorial team they recruited to do viral news clearly liked the stories we were producing at the start, and greeted it enthusiastically, but as with Peretti in 2009, they were not happy when they were asked to pay for it.
In our court action against them, an email from the start of 2014, in January, showed BuzzFeed were discussing CEN and would go on to do so for three months, but their lawyers claimed that dialogue was confidential. What they handed over is so redacted it does not even include the names of those involved.
CEN copy was, by early 2014, being widely shared within the BuzzFeed organisation, with their London team discovering time and again that the viral news they wanted to publish had already been done by CEN and sold to their rivals.
The lead writer on the ‘King of Bullshit News‘ story was Alan White. In court he revealed how he’d first heard of CEN.
He said: “Well, through this whole early period of BuzzFeed our jobs were to scour the internet for things that were trending, and frequently things that were trending were CEN stories.”
Indeed, his byline was often on stories done previously by CEN, and right up to the day where the BuzzFeed takedown of CEN stories was published, we found two of his most recently published stories were items we had sent out some 24 hours earlier.
Unable to accept that we were doing a better job, the BuzzFeed team convinced themselves that the stories were not true, with Luke Lewis, a former music journalist made head of BuzzFeed, one of the first to voice annoyance on the subject by alleging that a story from CEN about a woman who spent two weeks in KFC after being dumped by her boyfriend was a fake.
They decided, without any actual evidence, that CEN needed to be taken down, and set about gathering the most bizarre examples of our tabloid journalism, which they decided were fake simply by the fact that they sounded too strange to be true.
BuzzFeed have been shy about revealing how the story took shape in their Slack chatroom, and chose to blank most of it out, but given that what was handed over was damning, one wonders exactly what it was that they felt they needed to cover up?
A selection of some of the comments include: “fucking CEN”, “I hate CEN”, “CEN bollocks” “God I hate CEN” and the poor chap who arrived late and waded in saying “just to add another voice to the ‘fuck CEN’ consensus”.
The dislike was all the more intense given that there was not one single story at this point that they had actually identified as really being fake other than simply believing it was fake, and even had the headline, “How One Man In Austria Became The King Of Viral Bullshit” written before anything had been found.
Later Luke Lewis discussed it with a Guardian journalist. BuzzFeed did not want me to know about that chat, and as you can see, they redacted the journalist’s name, but in the document metadata, which they forgot to remove, the other email partner was a ‘Jonathan Haynes’ at the Guardian.
Could that be the Guardian’s digital editor who has the same name? If it is the same person, then at the time he spoke to Luke Lewis, he was web news editor.
Luke told Jonathan that the KFC story was a confirmed fake, lamenting the spread of trashy tabloid media.
But as it is redacted, it is hard to know what the Guardian journalist replied. I wanted to ask the Guardian for a comment, but the information on how to contact their press office was hidden behind a pay wall, so I was unable to do so.
Perhaps the redacted material was to let Luke know about the great exclusive investigation CEN had done for the Guardian the previous week about how Nestlé was facing trial in Switzerland over murders that took place in Colombia?
Then again, perhaps not, as the BuzzFeed team then came up with the idea of an exposé and set about populating it with material from the internet, starting with the KFC story as the peg on which to hang it all.
The KFC story was the subject of a chat with Alan White, Richard James and Rossalyn Warren in early December, where he wrote: “Would be interesting with some of these to count up just how many outlets covered them, eg KFC story, must have been hundreds. that way it conveys the scale of the demand for this stuff in stripped-back newsrooms, but also means we’re not pointing the finger at particular publishers.”
Yet by 3rd of March 2015, Alan White drops the bombshell when he writes: “I actually think the quotes from the KFC woman are legit!”
Instead of leaving it in, it was quietly removed by Alan, who added a different story and wrote: “I went with this one instead of KFC girl as we have a bit more working to show.”
BuzzFeed had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage over the KFC story that they missed, decided it was fake with no evidence other than it was too good to be true, and then after discussing it with a reporter at the Guardian, the idea crystallised of a takedown of the agency that was beating them in rival news, making sure they were careful not to be seen as “pointing the finger of blame at particular publishers”, i.e. those who were clearly BuzzFeed rivals and the clients for our news.
When they found positive news like my five-month investigation into Bernie Madoff, my fight to get compensation for agencies ripped off after stories were used by a big telecom company, and my victory in a libel case alleging that I made up interviews, it was ignored.
It is also one of the many emails that underlines how they were not interested in researching any of the claims they made, unless it was researching our clients usage of that material, and which underlined the fact that the CEN story was commercially motivated.
In mid-January three months before publication, Alan White wrote a progress report to the rest of the team, saying: “It looks like we’ll basically show that several of our competitors have been publishing huge lies on a close-to- industrial scale. It’ll really piss a few publishers off and will also probably be the end for this guy’s business.”
He was therefore clearly aware of the damage 7,000 words under the headline ‘The King of Bullshit News‘ would do, and was so worried about how I might take the destruction of my life’s work, that he refused to come to Austria to meet me.
He had previously been pretending to us that he wanted to cover our laudable investigations unit, but once the letter revealing what they really wanted was sent, he was too scared to follow through.
He said: “Once we send this letter, I will not be going to Vienna to interview him and strongly advise even against 2 people doing it. I know Nick Davies, for example, abides by this rule, and I’ve made mistakes in the past I won’t again regarding this. As far as I’m concerned – but others may vary – it’s telephone or nothing.”
When his boss Luke Lewis asked for more detail, he wrote: “Purely personal safety. We’re telling him we’re about to destroy a business that took him over decade to build along with his entire professional credibility. You just do not know how a person will react to being put in that situation, nor who he knows out there. If that sounds over cautious so be it, I’ve ended up in bad situations before when I thought there was no risk at all.”
This is all included in an email in which the BuzzFeed team tidy up the loose ends before publication, and their Pulitzer prize winner Mark Schoofs advises that if they are not going to go there in person, they should use email, courier, physical letter, et cetera.
Most of the rest of the letter is redacted but they plan to give me five days to reply, and are busily taking screenshots of stories because “if alarms go off at the daily mail/mirror et cetera once he gets his communication, they could try to start updating/amending”.
Needless to say, that never happened.
Alan White, perhaps, had an inkling that there wasn’t really anything wrong with the stories in the first place when he wrote towards the end of the investigation: “The truth is that however much we hedge it, we will be saying “look at the shit Metro/ Mirror/ Mail run as truth and that we don’t.”
White then reverted to type by adding it “needs to be sensitive – it is a wider look at how the whole process of news production has changed, not a straight up hit job on him and the people buying the stories.
“Well, not quite.”
Tom Philips, who also had a byline on the story, detailed the strategy for diverting attention from the real objective when he wrote: “We’re keen that it shouldn’t look like we are running a hit piece on our competition for publishing CEN stories, so are going to try and focus it more on the debunking, the agency itself, and a general think piece take on the production of viral news (and acknowledged that we personally have both run CEN pieces in the past).”
You can watch the video here, or if you prefer, read the transcription below it:
Q. Was one of the advantages of doing this story to you that it might damage BuzzFeed’s competitors, like MailOnline and Mirror and The Sun, that may use more CEN stories than BuzzFeed?
A. When you say “advantage,” that is not the purpose.
Q. It was not your purpose even incidentally to obtain a competitive advantage by denigrating the work of your competitors?
A. No, gaining competitive advantage is not an accurate description of what we were trying to do with this.
Q. Well, you were trying to point out deficiencies in the product of BuzzFeed’s competitors. Is that a fair statement?
A. That is true, yes. Raise questions about the quality of some of their output.
The irony that BuzzFeed was also a customer of CEN seemed lost on their editorial team, even as they struggled to work out how they could formulate the story in a way that covered the fact they had been using CEN copy enthusiastically but didn’t want to pay for it any more.
But as well as the discussions and depositions, the way a draft of a story develops can also say a lot about the influences on the authors. In the early BuzzFeed story about me, for example, there was a sentence, later removed, that said: (Disclosure: BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail are of course competitors, and BuzzFeed, like the Daily Mail, has bought pictures and copy from CEN for posts, a list of which is at the bottom of this article.)
This sentence was removed from the final story before publication.
The draft also included the sentence: “In the game of viral news, of which BuzzFeed is undoubtedly a player, this small agency has managed to carve out a niche by trafficking in the kind of too good to check stories and images that promise social shares and traffic” which was replaced with just three words – “This small agency”.
Buzzfeed’s team knew that they needed to check what they were cutting and pasting, and in the early discussions, this initial cutting and pasting was referred to as the “easy bit”, pointing out that afterwards, they would need to go to the source to check.
You can watch the video here, or if you prefer, read the transcription below it:
Q. Is it fair to say that at some point you and others decided to go after Mr. Leidig and his business by just doing the “easy bit”?
MS. STROM: Objection.
THE WITNESS: No.
BY MR. WISE:
Q. What other than “the easy bit” did you do to prepare the story?
A. So we did a significant amount of research. When Alan is referring to “the easy bit” there, I can’t say for sure what he’s saying, but I’m imagining it’s things like reverse image searches to find out where the sources of images were, that sort of thing; the early stage preparatory work.
Q. Well, tell us what BuzzFeed did in addition to Internet research to prepare the story.
MS. STROM: Objection. He discussed just reverse image searches.
(To the witness) But you can answer.
THE WITNESS: I’m sorry. Can you say the question again?
Q. Yes. I believe in a previous answer you said it is not true that all BuzzFeed did is use the Internet to prepare the story.
A. I don’t believe that’s what I answered.
MS. STROM: You said did he do more than the “easy bit”.
THE WITNESS: Yeah, and I’m saying that the “easy bit” is not — does not just mean use the Internet.
BY MR. WISE:
Q. What, other than using the Internet, did BuzzFeed do in preparing the story?
MS. STROM: (To the witness) You can answer.
THE WITNESS: I — you know, we certainly spoke with — you know, for example, spoke with a photographer, Russian photographer. You know, that’s direct. We had a colleague, Tanya Chen, who was working on Chinese translation of some stuff. We did that. I mean, you know — yeah, using the Internet does quite a lot as well. You know, as I say, that is not merely “the easy bit.”
So, in five months of work all he could come up with was an email from a Russian photographer involved in one of the stories, who it turned out did not speak anything more than basic English.
It is true that they also had a reporter of Chinese heritage called Tanya Chen working on the story, but it very much looks as if she was only there to give credibility to the coverage by having someone with a Chinese name because 80 per cent of the stories they challenged originated in China.
Tanya admitted that she could not read or write Chinese, and could only speak a little, but had only 5th grade proficiency, not much help with internet research.
When quizzed, after repeatedly asking about sections of the story dealing with China where she could make little comment, Tania was finally given a copy while she was being deposed and asked to read it to highlight any of the information in the 7,000 words that was provided by her.
Yet despite being unable to find anything, she got a byline for some research on the story, which according to the paper trail was for a story about “knickers”.
Scanning through the thousands of documents for the word “knickers” found only one story – and they hardly needed a Chinese speaker for that – as it was from Singapore where the main language spoken is English.
This story was the one that had been chosen to replace the KFC tale after it was found to be true, after all, much better to have a supposedly fake story than a true one to water down the mix.
As they did not have any reporters who spoke any of the other languages from the countries that were the original source of these stories, they began to worry about how they could possibly describe any of them as ‘definitely fake’ to which Luke Lewis, in an email, replied: “You might not have to. Let’s interview verification experts, someone like Craig Silverman, and get to the point where there is enough of a question mark over the stories.”
So, Silverman was brought in. And he came with a debunking software that he was hoping to sell called Emergent.
Emergent operated by assigning subjective ‘truthiness ratings’ to news items but it didn’t work.
He also brought credibility, assigning himself “Buzzfeed Reporter” no doubt was less likely to open doors than writing ‘Craig Silverman, Founder, Emergent’ and ‘Fellow, Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Columbia University’
He used this signature to interview people he hoped would criticise CEN for the story.
Silverman contacted bitter rivals of the Mail Online such as a reporter on Sweden’s Metro, not owned by UK Metro’s parent company DMG, as well as others who also disliked CEN.
In an email in mid-January Alan White confessed they had “actually devoted no time at all” on the story, even though they had already had the headline in place since the previous year.
The pace quickened though after that, with the team hoovering vast amounts or material from the internet, as long as it fitted their narrative, and discarding anything that showed me or my agency in a positive light.
Did they really think it was believable that an agency producing upwards of 8,000 stories a year could get away with those “often” being fake, and that no one would notice other than Buzzfeed?
But the UK team were desperate to keep New York happy, and Ben Smith chased the story in calls and emails.
It was Smith who, when he heard about Silverman, invited him to New York and brought him onto the team, realising the importance of his independent media credentials. Smith, together with Schoofs, were controlling the UK team like puppet masters as they made the story match the headline.
I could write a book on what BuzzFeed did over those months as the article took shape, it is an incredible tale that under any other circumstances I would have been fascinated to cover, and what I’ve written here has not even scratched the surface.
BuzzFeed took away many things, too painful to mention here, that no court case can undo.
That legal challenge is not over but it is on its last legs. We are currently appealing the refusal to allow it to go to trial in the US Supreme Court, but win or lose, the case has given me a public profile, with one report I read describing it as the battle of two viral giants.
In the sub text of their attack, BuzzFeed confirmed that we were not only good at what we did, but that we were the best, and we’re still here not just because we are good at news, but because our clients knew we were never the fake news factory BuzzFeed accused us of being.
Even BuzzFeed didn’t really believe it, as right after the BuzzFeed exposé was published, Buzzfeed’s Conz Preti wrote to the company’s LGBT desk to rave about a story in the Mail Online everyone was talking about that she “wanted to flag”.
And who supplied it? CEN.
An outraged Nicolas Mora had fired back: “So the pics come from CEN, which we just totally debunked and disavowed as a source. Just FYI.”
Later still, Buzzfeed’s LA pic desk editor Jenna Williams sent an email “BuzzFeed Image Request- Hainan Airline” saying: “I am reaching out in hopes that you can point me in the right direction of finding these images. We would love to run a story on it. Please let me know if you can help with this. Thanks in advance!”
If BuzzFeed paid for what they ordered from us, it might even have gone some way towards making up for the clients we lost.
As far as I can see, BuzzFeed has no future as it saw the value in real news too late, and after pulling down the barrier between journalism’s church and state, it is hard to put it back.
Ben Smith, who has now moved from Buzzfeed to become a respected media commentator, was demanding nothing less from his UK office than he was from every other part of the organisation.
Give the reporters a headline and get them to fill in the rest.
And that is where I finally realised now that despite no success so far in the legal case, we are still not in a bad position. BuzzFeed has gone from the UK but my agency is still here.
We don’t have any advertisers, so there’s nobody to tell us what to write. We are completely free to write anything we want about anyone, as long as we remain accurate and on time.
I write this because the story needs to be told not for my business to grow, but because when they wrote the story, it also destroyed my project for a global freelance journalism network.
As BuzzFeed was discussing my organisation in the more than six hundred emails and other documents they declined to hand over during the lawsuit, invoking “attorney-client privilege”, I was doing the business plan for this project with a Vienna investment banker, and shortly before the BuzzFeed story I was promised a six-figure investment.
When Alan White called pretending that he wanted to write a story about my laudable investigative journalism, and hiding what he was really planning to write, I asked him if they could wait six months for the project to be finished.
He never did, because the “laudable investigative journalism,” was never what he was interested in.
When they published their story, I lost the investment that would have completed the project, and I tried other sources of funding like Google, but when you’re the ‘King of Bullshit News‘ you don’t get past the first hurdle.
So, I did it myself.
Now, five years on, despite the BuzzFeed accusations, despite fighting a crippling court case, despite needing to find hundreds of thousands to pay the software costs to create a virtual newsroom, we are through beta testing and our global newsroom is alive.
There is still a long way to go and it may well not survive, but I’m proud that I never gave up on the dream, and I realised it to the point where now others need to get involved and that is out of my hands.
I’ve done what I can, I’ve passed on the message, I can’t control if you want to listen, and if it doesn’t work I will not be the bitter person I would have been if I had given up five years ago.
And I am sure you will agree, if I pull it off, going from the ‘King of Bullshit News‘ back to creating a global newsroom to restore credibility to the fractured media landscape will be a comeback that will make a great story.
The ViralTab page is created by and dedicated to professional, independent freelance journalists. It is a place for us to showcase our work. When our news is sold to our media partners, we will include the link here.