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Two giants of the viral Internet went head to head this week, when Buzzfeed's Jack Stuef wrote an expose on The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman.
Buzzfeed came under heavy criticism when Inman tore apart Stuef's article, pointing out major factual errors in the piece.
Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, offered a sort-of apology and correction to GigaOM, explaining that the biggest error, in which Stuef cited a fake public profile--had been corrected almost immediately.
"The original article had a serious factual error, which we corrected fully and within an hour of its publication three days ago, and which we deeply regret," Smith said. "The corrected piece is fully accurate, and the complaints you refer to—which incidentally include a false claim that we pay by page views—confirm much of what’s in the piece."
"On a personal note, I think some Oatmeal comics are hilarious," he added.
GigaOM's Jeff John Roberts, however, suggests that Buzzfeed hasn't gone far enough.
Smith may be technically right to say that the “corrected piece is fully accurate,” but this response does not acknowledge to Inman or BuzzFeed’s readers how completely the rest of the venom-filled story collapses when the error is removed. Worse, BuzzFeed’s only mea culpa is a short dismissive note at the end of the piece — an editor’s note at the top would be a better response.
While hand-wringing over journalistic ethics is often tiresome (see Sullivan, Margaret), BuzzFeed’s growing stature means it deserves a few minutes over the coals. The site made its name with funny cat pictures but is now a major force in serious media. In the last year, it has partnered with the New York Times to cover political conventions and launched New Yorker style long-form journalism. If BuzzFeed wants to enjoy the prestige of those publications, it will have to do a better job of owning its mistakes.
Here's how it all went down: After Inman came under fire for making a rape joke, Stuef published "The Secrets Of The Internet's Most Beloved Viral Marketer."
It turned ugly quickly.
Inman posted a response on his blog, interjecting his trademark handwritten-style commentary in Stuef's original text in a journalist's nightmare of fact-checking and corrections.
In Stuef's piece, he accused Inman of pandering to an Internet audience and rigging his site using a Google-bait technique known as search engine optimization (SEO).
Most egregiously, Steuf referenced a so-called public profile of Inman's, citing it as proof that the comic is a secret Conservative with a wife and several children (Inman is an unmarried, avowed Democrat)--and using that information in an attempt to prove that Inman is executing some kind of massive personal fraud.
The profile, on a little-known network called SodaHead, was fake and easily debunked.
After shredding the Buzzfeed piece, Inman landed a nasty blow, dredging up an off-color joke Stuef made about Sarah Palin's son Trigg that led to Stuef parting ways with Wonkette.