Atlantic Scientology post leads to apology – and debate over advertising
Magazine stirs controversy by allowing marketing department to moderate critical comments before removing article entirely
Amanda Holpuch; guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 15 January 2013 12.41 ESTt
The Atlantic, the US cultural magazine with a distinguished 156-year history, has removed a sponsored post about Scientology from its website, admitting it had allowed its marketing department to moderate comments and promising to review its policies.
After being widely ridiculed for publishing the post, including swipes from some of its most prominent writers, the magazine said Tuesday it had "screwed up".
A statement said the Atlantic "sheepishly" regretted that it was alerted to the error of judgment only after a "wave of constructive criticism".
Monday's article lauded the Scientology leader, and, initially at least, it seemed that only positive reader comments were accepted below the text.
The post closely resembled the appearance of a typical Atlantic article, but was in fact was an advertorial adoration of "ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion", David Miscavige. Screen shots preserved the content of the original post, which read:
[quote] Twenty-twelve was a milestone year for Scientology, with the religion expanding to more than 10,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups, spanning 167 nations – figures that represent a growth rate 20 times that of a decade ago.
[quote]The driving force behind this unparalleled era of growth is David Miscavige, ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion. Mr Miscavige is unrelenting in his work for millions of parishioners and the cities served by Scientology churches. He has led a renaissance for the religion itself, while driving worldwide programs to serve communities through church-sponsored social and humanitarian initiatives.
The extensive post also featured pictures of "ideal churches" opening around the globe in 2012. "It is from these ideal churches that Scientologists extend their humanitarian programs to mitigate intolerance, illiteracy, immorality and drug abuse," the ad said. The article was removed late Monday night.
In its statement on Tuesday, the Atlantic was contrite. It said:
[quote]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.
[quote]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.
[quote]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.
[quote]We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge – sheepishly – that that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right.
In a link above the original post, the Atlantic said the sponsored content was created by the magazine's promotions department in partnership with its advertisers, and that "the Atlantic editorial team is not involved in [its] creation."
The post was the subject of much criticism on social media. Some Atlantic staff members used the post as an opportunity to tweet support for New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright's book on Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, based in part on his 2011 New Yorker article Paul Haggis v the Church of Scientology. Wright's book will be released this Thursday.
The post also added to the debate on sponsored content, one of many revenue models being tested in various parts of the news business.
Jay Lauf, the Atlantic's publisher, explained why the magazine would use sponsored content to Digiday in September 2012. "A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more," Lauf said. "It's saying: 'You know what you're interested in.' It's more respectful of the reader that way."