The Mirror

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Plays Dumb About Company Investors: ‘How Would We Even Know?’

Betsy Rothstein Gossip blogger
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BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith is not one to play dumb. So why is he?

On Monday night he published an insightful, important story on Uber exec Emil Michael plotting to do oppo on journalists. But what he failed to disclose is as important as what he did.

“I don’t get it,” The Federalist editor Sean Davis told The Mirror Thursday morning in a phone interview after unleashing an attack piece about Smith’s failure to disclose connections between BuzzFeed Chairman Ken Lerer and Sidecar, an Uber competitor. “It’s journalism. Everyone makes mistakes. When you make a mistake, you say, I’ll fix it. It’s so easy. It’s what we teach our children. It’s not a mind-blowing lesson that adults should need to be taught, but here we are.”

Davis pointed out that Lerer is barely ever on Twitter. And yet after Smith’s Uber story, he logged on and wrote, “Someone smart asked me why do I care so much about this Uber issue. Here is why: it’s all about the journalism.”

Yeah, yeah. Except when it isn’t.

Davis told The Mirror he had no issue with the substance of Smith’s original story. It’s the lack of disclosure that bothers him. “It’s not surprising given BuzzFeed’s view on ethics in journalism,” he reasoned. “Look how much of their stuff comes from Reddit. The whole thing is ridiculous. If he was up front that he was the one who heard this and included a note at the end say Ken Lerer is invested, everyone would say, ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ As soon as you try to hide it, that’s so much worse.”

Asked for a comment on the lack of disclosures, the conflicts of interest and whether Uber also invests in BuzzFeed, Smith passed my questions to BuzzFeed Chief of Staff Ashley McCollum, who directed me to a tweet response in which she wrote, “BF’s investors invest in over 1000 companies. It’s insulting to Ben and our reporters to imply there’s any conflict in our reporting.”

But perhaps it’s also insulting to readers to not give them the complete picture.

Davis’ own disclosure at the end of his story is rather amusing.

“Davis: Full disclosure: I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, or taxi cabs. I used Uber once in New York City several months ago. The rest of the time I drive my own car, like a normal person.” 

Naturally, the two men got in a pretty nasty Twitter tiff:

Ben Smith: “We disclose when we cover investors; not every company they invest in. (how would we even know?)”

Sean Davis: “‘How would we even know?’ Uh, how do you think I know? I looked on Lerer’s website.”

Ben Smith: “I am trying not to act like your editor, but you should prob do a similar search for uber ties.”

Sean Davis: “You’re in no position to be issuing research assignments. Lerer doesn’t own Uber, btw.”

Ben Smith: “I refuse to do your homework for you. But this google conspiracy theory game is so, so easy.

Sean Davis: “You refuse to do a lot of homework. Nobody’s arguing that.”

Sean Davis: “I asked you a simple question: what’s your policy to avoid/disclose COIs w/ your boss’s investments? You obviously have none.”

Who’s the winner here?

Clearly, Davis.

And the losers?

Readers, who don’t know any better. And obviously, BuzzFeed, for not being transparent.

Smith wrote a genuinely important story for journalists that would’ve been far stronger with the proper disclosures.

As it stands, it all feels a little too fishy.