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The Atlantic magazine made a fairly large mistake recently when it ran some "sponsor content" from the Church of Scientology. What ran was something resembling an article from the Church about all the great things going on there. The Atlantic initially moderated the comments in a way that seemed to be cheerleading for the Church. Then when people around the web noticed they took the article down, plainly said "we goofed," and added that they would be conducting a review of what happened. (All were good moves.) That review was evidently completed, and the results were summarized in a memo that became public today. I've linked to it.

I see three problems. 

One: why is this a memo to staff (which was leaked) rather than a public statement by The Atlantic about what went wrong with the Scientology deal? I'd love to know. Seems to me there are almost no advantages to making it an internal thing and many plusses to going public. Well, it became public anyway, a completely predictable event because the writers were pissed!

Two: The memo from Atlantic president Scott Havens says that there was nothing wrong with the idea of selling "sponsored content" to the Church of Scientology. The error was in "the execution of the campaign." More specifically, "we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand." This suggests that there was a way of giving space to the Church of Scientology to tell its story that would be line with the Atlantic's editorial brand, but the business staff just didn't execute well enough.

I question that claim. The Church has been extremely hostile to journalists. Its attempts to intimidate the press and prevent facts that don't fit its narrative from coming out are well documented and would be well known to the Atlantic's editorial staff. See:

http://www.lamag.com/features/2012/12/18/the-tip-of-the-spear

It's also extremely aggressive in promoting an unblemished image of the Church. The idea that Scientology was a good candidate for "sponsored content" but the Atlantic just didn't execute well feels far fetched to me, especially in a memo that says: "Our highest priority is The Atlantic’s reputation and credibility." Scientology was a poor candidate for sponsored content, exactly the kind of client that should be turned down because of the likelihood of reputation harm. 

Three: The memo makes a point of warning the writers, critics and bloggers at The Atlantic, who speak their minds about almost everything: "And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together."

What actually happened is that some writers for The Atlantic said on Twitter that they were not on board with this decision, had nothing to do with it, and they were concerned about it. That's not an attack. It's an alarm. It may be uncomfortable and embarrassing for the organization, but if the highest priority is the Atlantic's reputation and credibility, then the people who run the magazine should be grateful for writers who say publicly, "the team erred." 

Let me add that I am a (paid) subscriber to The Atlantic, a loyal reader of theatlantic.com, and a fan of many of the magazine's writers. I want its reputation to remain high. The decision to go forward with the Scientology feature was a mistake from which The Atlantic and the journalism world can learn. But there seems to be some mistaken ideas in play. That's not about execution, Mr. Havens. 
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8 comments
 
Anything involving that group is going to wind up in a screwup.
 
I'm wondering just which part of The Atlantic "team" "leaves for the weekend"? The memo doesn't seem to be addressed to writers or journalists - just the office staff. I love "push it up the chain."
 
I am not defending either Scientology or the Atlantic here. But I would ask Rosen whether he took the time to pose any of these questions directly to Scott Havens. Surely Rosen's public profile alone would have prompted a reply.

Also, Rosen states that the memo (in his reading of it) "suggests" that the memo is saying something more directly than it does, and then he disputes that as a "claim" made by the Atlantic. And he does so with recourse to a hypothetical scenario that assumes the Atlantic would have been successfully bullied by Scientology.
 
Should one be ready to advertise about anything that is legal?  The short answer is no.  The longer answer is "everything has a price" (I know, saying "everything" is controversial).  
But before an ad for the Church of Scientology in a publication like the Atlantic is a good deal for the Atlantic, the price has to be pretty high :)

By the way, +Jay Rosen, I must say I find the leaked memo pretty thorough and balanced.  Not sure I have anything wrong with it.  

Regarding your first point, I dont think the existence of a private memo precludes the existence of a public statement, and I find it reasonable to start with private and then do public.

Regarding your third point, I think you are reading between the lines something very different from what I am reading: "before going public, try to resolve internally"
 
Could someone please invite The Atlantic management to come here and comment?

The distinction between attacking and alarm-raising is important; the recipient organization needs the latter, but its management may not see the distinction.
 
Hey Haj, why did you not attempt to contact me before you posted that critical comment? Let me answer for you. It's an absurd demand. I was commenting on a text that was posted on the internet, which I linked to. That fulfills the ethical standard I hold myself to. I have the same standard for what others say about my writing. Anyone is free to comment on what I say on the internet without checking in with me first. Cheers.
 
+Jay Rosen  Thanks for the offer, but no need to answer for me.

I was responding to something you'd written in a public forum—and since it's one over which you have apparent control, I assumed you'd see it and respond in some fashion. (Though, to tell the truth, I thought it would be in a somewhat less thin-skinned way.)

You, on the other hand, were commenting on a memo that had been sent internally, to Atlantic staffers, and then leaked. Your comments touch on the editorial integrity of the Atlantic, and your view of that integrity rests on your reading of the memo—without any clarifying input from the person who wrote it.

If I were to have taken your initial commentary and posted it on a blog somewhere, and then picked it apart accusatorially without seeking comment from you, I wouldn't feel that I'd been at all fair. I don't think contacting you would have been an "absurd demand." On the contrary, I'd have felt obliged to do so.

So. Cheers, yourself. Enjoy the ethical standards to which you hold yourself.
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