Dynamist Blog

Forbes.com, Self-Censorship, and the Perils of Cheap Content

A few weeks ago, Forbes.com abruptly fired contributor Bill Frezza after he posted a column warning fraternities to watch out for female party guests who show up intoxicated. I addressed the substance of his column and the resulting controversy in this Bloomberg View piece. Frezza has now written a follow-up post on his own site, explaining why he cares so passionately about the problem of binge drinking.

What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. Forbes.com (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn't spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand. In the traditional model, Frezza's article either would have had the backing of the publication--which would have stood up for it--or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, "No thanks. What else do you have?" There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another Forbes.com would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads Forbes.com knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.) Forbes.com's business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils. 

Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly. That's made clear in the email that opinion editor Avik Roy sent out following Frezza's firing, which was passed on to me by someone who got it from a Forbes.com contributor:

Fellow Opinionators,

You may know "don't do stupid stuff" as the Obama foreign policy doctrine. But it also applies to writing for Forbes.

On Tuesday, one of our contributors wrote a piece entitled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities." The first sentence read, "I realize this headline is click-bait, but I believe it to be true. Let me explain."

The article did not meet our editorial standards -- not by a long shot -- and was taken down within 8 minutes of its publication. The contributor is no longer with us.

8 minutes, however, was long enough for the article to ignite a firestorm around the internet, much of it justified. You can survey the wreckage here:


As you know, we allow the vast majority of you to self-publish on the Forbes platform without prior editorial review. This is because we trust you to write responsibly about matters of public importance, in a way befitting your own reputations and the Forbes brand. But as opinion writers, we are all capable of making mistakes.

The contributor in question here was one of our best performers from a traffic standpoint. It doesn't matter. Forbes' reputation for quality journalism is more important than traffic stats or any individual. If you're writing about a sensitive or controversial topic, please make sure you're doing so in a way that brings light, instead of heat, to the issue.

Overall, you all are doing great work. Forbes Opinion traffic is up around 50 percent, relative to last year. Our impact is increasing as we refocus the channel around original expert commentary, like yours. But let's make sure that we use this week's incident as an opportunity to improve.



Avik S. A. Roy
Opinion Editor, Forbes
60 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

[email protected]

The latest news out of Forbes.com is this Facebook post from former contributor Brett Arends reporting that he and other, unnamed contributors have also been fired, despite having nothing to do with Frezza's article.

Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman (yes, that's really his name) had to be seen to be doing something. Forbes just got sold to some people in Hong Kong. Mr Bigman had to be able to say "look - I've taken action! I've fired people!" So he's axed a bunch of contributors, pretty much randomly. Apparently the only unifying theme is that we write interesting copy.

In another post, he writes:

The sad thing is that people will take this as a sign that the original "bucks for clicks" Forbes model didn't work. The truth is that it would be an excellent model - so long as you don't give blog posts to guys the editor met at a cookout.

It's an excellent model until it isn't. Arends thinks Frezza got in trouble because he was an "amateur," but he's just being arrogant. The same thing could have happened to anyone, however experienced, who offended the wrong loud voices. For now, Forbes.com seems to think a combination of columnist pruning and self-censorship will make it work.

Update: A reader alerts me to this August Space Politics post and discussion about a deleted Forbes.com post attacking Space X with what (from the post) appear to be ill-founded rumors. That contributor still appears to be on the Forbes.com team, having posted most recently four days ago.

Note: Bill Frezza's archive is still on the Forbes.com site. You can see how many views each post received--the numbers range widely, from a few hundred to tens of thousands--which (assuming Roy is telling the truth) gives some idea of what qualifies as "one of our best performers."

Does "Culture" Now Equal "Food"? What I Learned at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble

Cultural-Studies Food
At the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble, the "cultural studies" section is largely devoted to food.

On a recent visit to the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble store, I visited the "cultural studies" section to make sure they had The Power of Glamour in stock. At first, I was confused, thinking I'd wandered into the wrong area. The sign said "cultural studies," but the books seemed to be all about food. I started writing down the titles:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the WorldEating AnimalsLocal: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the WorldFood Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth behind Food Labeling, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, The Carnivore's Manifesto: Eating Well, Eating Responsibly, and Eating MeThe World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human RaceSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an IndustryThe American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table...

And all of those are before you get to Michael Pollan, whose phenomenal success undoubtedly explains why publishers put out so many food-related cultural studies. The section features Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, a modest selection of titles.

Once past Pollan (and the easily overlooked non-food book by Postrel), the list of food titles goes on: The End of Food, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth, and, of course the best-seller Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal and movie tie-in Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It. The food books in this section are all indeed cultural studies; nutrition and cooking have sections of their own. Most of the section's other titles are about drugs (particularly marijuana), tattoos, and piercing.

Why, in Santa Monica at least, does "culture" now equal "food"? There are two reasons. The first is the way Barnes & Noble is organized. Many cultural topics, including religion, entertainment, fashion, and sports, have sections of their own. "Social science" siphons off most of the sociological books that have any element of rigor (which is not to say they're academic). The adjacent Asian, Hispanic, Native American, African-American, Gay, Lesbian, and Women's Studies sections take care of most of the other cultural works.

What remains are books that address the other ways that white people in Santa Monica define their cultural identities: drugs, body modification, and, above all, food. Your ancestors may have rebelled against food taboos but, these days, you are what you refuse to eat.

What Financial Advisors Should Know About Glamour

Ken Silber, who wrote an early review of The Power of Glamour, recently did an interview with me for Research, a trade magazine for financial advisors. Here are a couple of snippets:

What are your impressions of the financial services industry's use of visual imagery in its marketing efforts?
Financial services advertising that doesn't just use numbers generally looks like travel advertising: couples or families walking on beaches, hiking on trails, sitting by pools, overlooking the rail on cruise ships. It sells leisure and family time. As a reminder of why you’re saving and investing, it makes sense, but I don't see how it differentiates any given firm from another.
It is interesting, however, that industry advertising uses almost entirely positive, often glamorous imagery—here's what life could look like—rather than playing on people's fears of running out of money. I wonder whether it sends the signal that its services are for people who don't have to worry about money. (I collected some examples on a Pinterest board here: http://www.pinterest.com/vpostrel/financial-service-ads/. Interestingly, many of these are templates designed for small firms or individual practitioners.)...
Is Wall Street (the industry and/or the place) glamorous? Has it become more or less so over time?
Wall Street is a good example of the relation between glamour and horror. From a distance, it suggests easy money: wealth somehow conjured out of the air. A less simplistic but equally glamorous idea is wealth gained through special insight and the ability to spot patterns no one else sees. These are alluring ideas that attract individual investors and a steady flow of talent into Wall Street jobs. But they also suggest what has always frightened people about finance. It seems like some kind of trick or gambling, disconnected from “real life” or “real business.”

It's a wide-ranging conversation, so you should read the whole thing.

Why Visual Persuasion Matters in Politics: A Cato Unbound Conversation

In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.

There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica orWashington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.

In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.

At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.

It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.

Yet images are so ubiquitous they’ve been called “the lingua franca of politics.”

That's the opening to my first entry in a lively discussion of visual persuasion, glamour, and politics, organized by Cato Unbound, with contributions from Grant McCrackenAutumn Whitefield-Madrano, and Martin Gurri. Check out the full discussion here.

Max Weber on Why American Workers Tolerated Corrupt Political Officials

In 1904, the great sociologist Max Weber toured the United States, doing research and making contacts that proved influential on his later work, particularly The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sociologist Lawrence Scaff reconstructed the journey in his fascinating 2011 book Max Weber in America (summarized pretty well in this New Republic review by Alan Wolfe). I've never been a fan of The Protestant Ethic, but Scaff made me want to go back and read it again.

Reflecting a decade later on his conversations with skilled blue-collar workers in America, Weber wrote the following about why they tolerated the corrupt appointees of political machines rather than embracing the technocratic professionalism championed by educated reformers, including Weber.

Whenever I sat in company with such workers and said to them: “How can you let yourselves be governed by these people who are put in office without your consent and who naturally make as much money out of their office as possible...how can you let yourselves be governed by this corrupt association that is notorious for robbing you of hundreds of millions?”, I would occasionally receive the characteristic reply which I hope I may repeat, word for word and without adornment: “That doesn’t matter, there’s enough money there to be stolen and still enough left over for others to earn something—for us too. We spit on these ‘professionals,’ these officials. We despise them. But if the offices are filled by a trained, qualified class, such as you have in your country, it will be the officials who spit on us.” That was the decisive point for these people. They feared the emergence of the type of officialdom which already exists in Europe, an exclusive status group of university-educated officials with professional training.

They weren't wrong.

Tax Day Lament: Bring Back Income Averaging!

It’s April 15, a day that reminds us that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is enormous. Or, in my case, the difference between December 31 and January 24--the date in 2013 on which I received a book payment I was supposed to receive in 2012. That delay doubled my book income for 2013 while leaving some of the offsetting expenses, as well as a large charitable trust contribution, in 2012. It also meant that all of my book payment, instead of part of it, was taxed at a higher (though far from the highest) rate.

In other words, I wound up paying extra taxes on the same amount of money.

The difference between one year and the next wouldn’t matter so much if all income were taxed at the same rate. Before the 1986 tax reform flattened rates, people with fluctuating incomes could in fact average their incomes across years for tax purposes. Abolishing averaging went along with a simpler, less-progressive tax system.

But the tax system has gotten more complex and progressive in recent years, making the arbitrary distinction between this year’s income and last year’s all the more unfair. (Year-to-year fluctuations don’t make a significant tax difference for the relatively few people who are always taxed at the top rate.)

One special class of people still gets to escape the tyranny of the tax calendar. In 1997, Congress restored income averaging for farmers and ranchers. It’s even more galling to be taxed extra for Simon & Schuster’s slow payment knowing that if I were growing corn instead of writing books I’d be able to offset the good years against the bad ones.

Great Moments in Damage Control: A 1903 Store Owner Learns Not to Insult Female Employees

The following correction ran in the April 18, 1903 issue of the Dry Goods Reporter, a retailing trade publication:

In an article by Mr. J. F. Phelan of the Phelan Dry Goods Company, Galesburg, Ill., under the head "Ladies' Ready-made Garment," that appeared in the "Reporter" some weeks back, Mr. Phelan desires the following corrections: The expression "women do not attend so carefully to their business as do the men" is an error. The remark that "women get married when valuable as salespeople" is also incorrect. The words "married men are even more reliable and usually more respectable than single men" should have read "I believe they are more reliable and more responsible."

Thinking that the correction might be satirical, I found the original article, which ran January 3. The correction was no joke.

Regarding help, I find that men are much more satisfactory. Ladies do not attend so carefully to the business, I find, as do the men. Men folks seem to be more reliable. The girls are often interested in outside matters, and they are not able to concentrate their minds on the business so closely as are the men. They are getting married when valuable. Married men are better help than unmarried, as I believe they are even more reliable and usually more respectable.

I'd love to know what transpired in the three months between the article and the correction.

The Washington-Hollywood Nexus: Talking Glamour and Politics with Brian Lamb

In this one-hour C-SPAN video, I answer Brian Lamb's questions about relations between Washington and Hollywood and, I hope, dispel the notion that rounding up some over-the-hill movie stars equals glamour, at least anywhere but Washington.

For a fuller discussion of glamour and politics, see my talk at the John Locke Foundation here.

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