Last night, the newly-formed Huffington Post Media Group had to fire another writer — the second this month — for an obvious and preventable ethical breach.
Jeff Glucker, an Autoblog contributor, published what seemed like a fairly innocuous but glowing report on a new ad campaign for the Nissan Versa involving Britney Spears. What the site never disclosed is Glucker worked for the advertising company behind the campaign, that he benefited directly from each view an embedded video received, and that he'd forwarded an email to a dozen other fellow writers asking them to publish the same.
In both cases, Arianna Huffington, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's digital content knight in shining armor, or the editors she manages, displayed a frightening lack of hands-on management of editorial employees. Now, statements from her editors involved in yesterday's incident at AOL's Autoblog indicate a complete abdication of accountability for this lack of judgment. The culture Huffington's fostered as head of editorial content at AOL is really pissing us off.
Yeah, we know this isn't a story about cars, but before you flame us in the comments, let us first explain how it's relevant to you as a car guy.
All of us here at Jalopnik have worked our asses off to be seen as a journalistic endeavor, casting aside establishment perceptions of internet journalists as nothing more than a pack of illiterate, chattering Internet gibbons. We like to think we're proven, hardened journalists who've broken stories of corporate greed, automaker safety problems, and the successes of building good cars and trucks.
But then the TechCrunch/Huffington kerfuffle of a few weeks ago replayed itself yesterday on one of the flagship sites of the brave, new post-AOL/HuffPo merger world. Like it or not, Autoblog's an important part of the daily media diet of anyone obsessed with the auto industry. We know some of you read it, and we read it too. Just as they read us. That's because although we're not in direct competition with Autoblog, when they make an ethical misstep it still reflects poorly on us too.
And after this second misstep since Arianna Huffington took the editorial reins of AOL — and with it, Autoblog — it begins to feel less like an isolated event — and rather, the result of dangerous ambivalence starting from the top and working its way down the chain of command at AOL's new media empire.
When Michael Arrington attempted to start up a venture capital fund that would directly benefit from his role as editorial leader of an influential site reporting on the same industry, AOL didn't just look the other way, they invested in it. When Arianna Huffington took over editorial content for AOL she was, by the company's own admission, completely unaware of the transaction. In fact, when the news dropped she was reportedly vacationing in Brazil and had to quickly fire him.
The New York Times media critic David Carr, reporting on the journalistic questions the Arrington affair raised, concluded with this:
If insiders can trade on the news they publish, readers may become an adjunct to a business that is less about public information than private gain.
That, in a story broken exclusively here, is exactly what happened last night at AOL's Huffington Post Media Group website Autoblog.
Autoblog's defense? So similar to Huffington's it's comical. They claim they had no idea it was happening and cited HPMG's obviously unenforced ethical guidelines.
We say "obviously" because Glucker not only exercised a lapse in judgment with the Nissan promotion, but when he was hired, he was still allowed to continue to be in charge of advertising for an automotive site he founded. Autoblog's editors certainly knew this, but didn't care about it until last night's incredibly egregious action — and more importantly, to the harsh light of truth being shined upon it.
We say "obviously" because although Glucker was fired last night Autoblog is still posting his work today.
We say "obviously" because Autoblog's Senior Editor Damon Lavrinc, in a response to the issue on his own site, essentially decided to blame the people who outed him, saying:
If you're going to call out a fellow journalist about a conflict of interest, why not go out of your way – if you respect him, his peers or his outlet – to drop the editor a line, ask what's up and then report on how the situation was handled?
This could be the new blame-the-messenger Huffington Post Media Group motto: it's not our fault, we didn't know, and screw you for bringing it up you heartless bastard.
Glucker, like Arrington, had his head chopped off because of a policy no one inside the company is willing to enforce so long as the content producers continue regurgitating press releases and summarazing other people's stories. If no one at Huffington Post Media Group is responsible for the actions of anyone who works below them it then becomes the responsibility of other outlets.
Huffington needs to immediately prove that's not the case if she wants to be seen as having editorial integrity. She, or her boss, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, need a zero-tolerance policy with her editors — as well as her writers. Huffington must put her foot down now and make it clear that if what happened yesterday happens on your watch as an editor — you lose your job too.
What happened yesterday is only feasible with a culture that makes it corporate policy to not know and not care what's going on. A culture Huffington and her underlings once again admitted existed last night, in repeated defense of their own ignorance. And that hurts all of us.