Network to Tabloid: drop ads

Outrageous tale of "Subway Whale" prompts protests to site's advertisers.


Brooke Shelby Biggs
October 5, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Tabloid.net likes to provoke people. The San Francisco-based site, run by two self-described burned-out newspapermen and a handful of freelancers around the world, has a unique formula: It combines the screaming headlines of the New York Post, a little HTML code and the adjective-packed prose of a century's worth of journalism's cynical bad boys.

Provocation, though, sometimes has unpredictable consequences. After Tabloid.net ran a story calling an obese subway conductor who'd won a lawsuit against the New York Transit Authority a "big fat pig" and "circus freak," activists complained to the site's advertising network, Flycast -- and Flycast promptly dropped Tabloid.net.

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Of course, it's not exactly a surprise that an edgy site like Tabloid might run afoul of advertisers. But the incident is one sign that feisty, independent journalism is even more vulnerable to the whims of the ad industry on the Web than it is in print.

According to the site's mission statement, Tabloid labors to be "the daily news service for readers weary of boring journalism. We put action back into the coverage of world events, strange news and the high-tech land of business and money." It also delights in tweaking and enraging the guardians of political correctness.

But the venture has never been much of a moneymaker. So beyond begging readers to send money, founders Ken Layne and Charles Hornberger broke down early this year and joined Flycast, an upstart online advertising brokerage that sells space on its clients' Web sites to interested media buyers.

Tabloid's offending story, which ran under the headline "Subway Whale," told of a 450-pound New Yorker who was denied a job with the New York Transit Authority. The man had failed the simple, standard physical fitness test -- a brief three-minute walk on a treadmill -- required for all subway conductors. He sued the agency for weight discrimination and won.

The story, written in Tabloid's deliberately coarse muckraking style, was a rant against frivolous lawsuits. With over-the-top pejoratives and florid overstatement, correspondent Ed Mazza argued that the conductor's "disability" was his own fault: "He, and he alone, is responsible for his massive size."

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Even Layne admitted in a later column that the story was not kind: "No, it wasn't sweet. You want sweet, you can buy a goddamned Hallmark card. This is Tabloid."

It's exactly that kind of blunt attitude that riled activists to mount a swift and successful campaign to get Tabloid dumped by Flycast. They were led by a woman named Chris Webster, who sent an e-mail to Tabloid's editors threatening retribution: " Fat people have lots of fat friends and skinny friends who love them. Unfortunately for you, you've just pissed us ALL off."

Nasty e-mail, it seems, was flying from all sides. After Tabloid published Webster's letter (complete with e-mail address) and the notice of termination from Flycast, Webster says she was assaulted by a rash of mean-spirited e-mails with comments like, "You are nothing but a quivering mound of gristle," and other, more obscene abuse.

(I was unable to interview Webster in depth for this article. Though she told me that she holds a degree in psychology and is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Tulane University specializing in symbolic logic, she refused to talk unless I could assure her that I was "writing a piece on how the downtrodden, the disenfranchised and the meek struck back at some evil bastards who were abusing their power to influence public opinion of the downtrodden, the disenfranchised and the meek.")

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In the termination letter it sent to Tabloid editors, Flycast said it had received complaints from three of its "largest advertisers," although it would not specify which advertisers. The letter said Tabloid had violated terms of its contract by publishing "offensive" material. Flycast pointed to the contract's prohibition of "content that is libelous, defamatory, contrary to public policy, or otherwise unlawful, or any other content deemed inappropriate by Flycast in its sole discretion." But that clause did not appear in the contract Tabloid originally signed with Flycast, which Layne forwarded to me.

Based on the wording Flycast cited, you might imagine that Flycast's remaining clients would be Disney and the Family Channel. You'd be wrong: The same expansive content restrictions apparently apply to other Flycast clients like the satirical site The Onion, the National Enquirer and a site dedicated to the ultra-non-PC cartoon "South Park." And since Flycast's contract does state that "Flycast has no responsibility to review the content of its Web site(s) or Ad Spaces," enforcement of the contract amounts to waiting for complaints.

In a scathing response to Flycast, Layne wrote: "Our New York columnist's article wasn't necessarily kind to the plight of the man. Indeed, it was a loud attack on frivolous lawsuits. But reason is never an issue with fanatics, and a so-called Internet advertising firm that bows to every complaint from fanatics is no better than the United Nations fleeing the Taliban."

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Not that losing Flycast's services strikes much of a blow to Tabloid, which has been hemorrhaging money from the get-go, by its own reports. And Layne says Flycast regularly failed to pay or underpaid for the ad space allotted.

Flycast representatives have refused to comment further on Tabloid.net, saying, "this is a private business matter and we are not commenting on it." Meanwhile, Tabloid.net is now weighing whether to sue Flycast over the incident.


Brooke Shelby Biggs

Brooke Shelby Biggs is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

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