Spot The Sponsored Content, Ctd

Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray uncovers a more clear-cut and troubling example of paid content (without even Buzzfeed’s and the Atlantic’s fig-leaf disclosures) masquerading as editorial:

A range of mainstream American publications printed paid propaganda for the government of Malaysia, much of it focused on the campaign against a pro-democracy figure there. The payments to conservative American opinion writers — whose work appeared in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState — emerged in a filing this week to the Department of Justice. The filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act outlines a campaign spanning May 2008 to April 2011 and led by Joshua Trevino, a conservative pundit, who received $389,724.70 under the contract and paid smaller sums to a series of conservative writers.

Let’s name the offenders, shall we?

Trevino’s subcontractors included conservative writer Ben Domenech, who made $36,000 from the arrangement, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who made $30,000. Seth Mandel, an editor at Commentary, made $5,500 (his byline is attached to the National Review item linked to above). Brad Jackson, writing at the time for RedState, made $24,700. Overall, 10 writers were part of the arrangement.

Treviño, amazingly, maintains he did not cross any lines:

“It was actually a fairly standard PR operation,” Trevino told BuzzFeed Friday. “To be blunt with you, and I think the filing is clear about this, it was a lot looser than a typical PR operation. I wanted to respect these guys’ independence and not have them be placement machines.”

Rich Abdill pushes back:

If “a fairly standard PR operation” involves paying off columnists to write about certain things, it seems journalists at every other publication ever were just misinformed about what was “ethical.” Jayson Blair stole quotes, made up stories, reported on events he never went to, then put it all in the New York Times, and he still did not take any bribes.

Joyner takes a similarly skeptical approach:

I’m more than a little leery of a pay-for-play arrangement. It’s hard for opinion writers, even good ones, to get paid. So I’m not four-square against bloggers taking money for writing posts supporting causes they already agree with. But it’s problematic, not to mention rather weird, for writers to suddenly start crusading on an issue they never cared about previously and which seems remote to their natural interest.

This is bribery and unethical journalism in my book. It also raises questions about the good faith of other work by the journalists involved. When there is no disclosure we can never know what is paid propaganda and what is actual journalism. Which, of course, is the point.