The Atlantic's Scientology apology

The publishing company says it "screwed up" but doesn't explain exactly how. Here are some hints

Published January 15, 2013 8:27AM (EST)

    (Reuters/Luke Macgregor)
(Reuters/Luke Macgregor)

The fallout from Atlantic Media's Church of Scientology advertorial continues. After a firestorm of criticism on Monday night, Alantic Media removed its "sponsored content" tribute to the great wisdom and leadership of David Miscavige, the "ecclesiastical leader" of the Church of Scientology, from its website. On Tuesday morning, the publishing company apologized.

We screwed up. It shouldn't have taken a wave of constructive criticism -- but it has -- to alert us that we've made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It's safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge -- sheepishly -- that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right.

As apologies go, the Atlantic sounds sincere, albeit a little fuzzy on the details. It is not clear what "possibly several mistakes" refers to, exactly. For example, one of the more disturbing aspects of the whole affair Monday night was the perception that the comments posted in response to the advertorial were being selectively moderated to only allow positive remarks to be published. Atlantic spokesperson Natalie Raabe told the Washington Post that the Atlantic's marketing team had handled the moderation. If so, that's probably an editorial no no. It's one thing to publish an advertisement labeled as "Sponsor Content." It's another thing entirely to try to control the conversation your readers engage in about the advertisement, with the result that they too become part of the propaganda machine.

But there's also been a backlash to the backlash. Many observers are wondering why sponsored content from the Church of Scientology provoked such overwhelming vitriol, when the practice of running such advertisements has been common for years throughout the publishing world both online and off. Who decides what's verboten and what's acceptable? At Forbes, Jeff Bercovici questioned why the line had been drawn at the door of the Church.

A lot of people would also say responsible media companies shouldn’t take ad dollars from oil companies, gun makers, fast food chains, junk food manufacturers, foreign governments with questionable human rights records, etc., or from financial firms with ties to any of the foregoing.

And yet they do, and will continue doing so. And understandably so -- the Internet broke the business model for producing journalism, and publishers are scrambling for dollars wherever they can, dollars that pay the salaries of the very journalists who are so squeamish about sponsored content. Most of us in the business understand and accept this.

So what makes the Church of Scientology different?

At least two things. First off, there's the creepy factor. Scientology's ad campaign is an obvious response to the publication this week of Lawrence Wright's much anticipated book about Scientology, Going Clear, which is sure to paint the Church, and in particular, its leader, David Miscavige, in thoroughly reported negative light. In response, Atlantic Media has facilitated an advertising campaign designed to proactively rehabilitate Miscavige in language that one normally associates with the propaganda organs of totalitarian governments. The gulf between the kind of thoughtful, intelligent content that the Atlantic usually produces and the Church of Scientology's hagiography could not have been more vast.

A second point may have to do with the history of how the indigenous culture of the Internet and the Church of Scientology have long been at odds. The Church has always gone to great lengths to control how it is represented to outsiders. From ancient pre-Web days, the denizens of the Net have gone to equally great lengths to promulgate information revealing the inner workings of the Church. The Church has also been notoriously litigious with respect to journalists who take a hard look at the Church. Those efforts at control provoke a fierce immune reaction both online and in the publishing world. The appearance of a Scientology advertorial at the Atlantic relit old antagonisms. And it hardly bears repeating that the perceived selected moderation of comments in favor of the Church only served to exacerbate this tension.

Bills must get paid. Online and offline publications are going to continue to run sponsored content. Efforts to make that content look as much like "real" editorial content -- so-called "native advertising" will also continue. There's certainly an element of holier-than-thou hypocrisy for anyone to say, this variety of sponsored content is OK, while this is anathema. But lines will get drawn anyway. People will get offended -- and when enough of them do, the offending publication may well lose more in terms of brand reputation than it gains in advertising dollars. We can all learn from Atlantic Media's adventures.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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