Buzzfeed is known for its Daily Mail-like reputation for publishing mind-numbing “listicles” of things you never knew or wanted to know about virtually any subject: the trashier the better. But some Buzzfeed readers make the mistake of thinking there’s professional journalism going on there. After all, Ben Smith was hired away from Politico to become its editor in chief. He has a staff of scores of reporters. But alongside whatever of value they may produce, Buzzfeed has an alternate existence as a publisher of paid content that masquerades as quasi-journalism. Nowhere on any of these articles will you see any indication that the advertisers paid to publish their promotions at Buzzfeed.
OK, I get it. The battle for quality journalism is lost at sites like Buzzfeed. I should save my outrage for issues where the battle is still not lost.
But what irks me specially tonight is this “article,” 51 Facts About Israel That Will Surprise You. It’s full of the usual inane hasbara hucksterism about the Startup Nation, Tel Aviv’s gorgeous beaches and bodies, Israel as gay paradise. You know the drill.
But what’s most interesting is that the “author” of this “report” is not a person, but ReThink Israel, which is called a “Brand Publisher.” This is one of those rebranding efforts you’ve read so much about as initiatives of the Israeli foreign and hasabara ministries. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to “reposition” Israel in its “market.” But in this case, ReThink Israel claims to be an independent non-profit.
It’s generously funded by Sheldon Adelson, King of the Slots. His partner in the venture is the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, run by neocon Malcolm Hoenlein. He’s the guy who bought and paid for Bibi Netanyahu’s political career. The same guy’s who’s single-handedly destroying Israel’s media industry by offering his daily newspaper free to everyone. The same guy who recommended dropping a nuke on Iran and said Palestinians don’t exist. The same guy who dropped a cool $100+ million on Mitt Romney that promptly went down the toilet. That’s the guy who’s asking you to “rethink Israel.” All I can is: Good luck, buddy. You’ll need it!
Here is how Adelson himself portrayed the mission of the project:
We have an NGO for hasbara. [RethinkIsrael.org, launched last week with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, per Eli Clifton] We’re going to provide information, propaganda if you will. To give you an example of a couple of the items. Israel has passed a law to outlaw thin models. Female fashion models. Can you imagine that?
We want to tell college students and we’re starting out with a target audience of 18-24… [My wife] Miri and I have well-financed this. We also say that we’re cool. The beaches are cool, the clubs are cool… Did you know that there are more museums per capital in Israel than … in any other country in the world? Did you know there’s a television show that dogs watch? We are hoping to diminish the reluctance of both Jewish and non-Jewish college students to look at Israel in a different way.
In thinking about efforts like this, it’s useful to read the critique of Alan Elsner, someone who used to do precisely this for another Israel Lobby advocacy group, The Israel Project:
Its adherents call it the “beyond the conflict” strategy. It basically tries to change the subject by talking about any aspect of life in Israel that has nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation, from boutique wineries to drip agriculture. It works great among people who already love Israel uncritically—and falls flat among everyone else.
…All of these nuggets…don’t address the fundamental question. The simple truth is that we will never get “beyond the conflict” until we end it.
In the eyes of the international community, the argument will always come back to the way Israel treats the Palestinians and whether it truly desires peace and will do what it takes to achieve it. And as long as Israel continues to build settlements and maintains the occupation, the world is not going to pay too much attention to its boutique wineries.
In a rare moment of candor, Adelson apparently realized the futility of the very mission he’s funding:
Hasbara’s not going to work– and my cavalry coming over the hill [referring to RethinkIsrael.org] really isn’t any cavalry. But with my lifetime experience, I think it’s very difficult to try to convince somebody when they think … I’m such a bad guy I have no right to do that. I occupy somebody else’s territory, I torture them, and according to Hanan Ashrawi we poison their children, and I do all these bad things, and we live in a– we created apartheid. So you can’t get really very far when somebody thinks all these bad things of you.
Returning to Buzzfeed, don’t be fooled by its “branded content” masquerading as journalism or by hasbara masquerading as truth. Perhaps we should change the title of this promotion to: 51 Facts About Israel About Which You Don’t Give a Crap. Oh, and there’s one ‘fact’ that they left out: the delectable taste of Israeli settler cherries (irony alert)!
To be fair, there is one good thing about Buzzfeed: they hired Sheera Frenkel to be their Middle East correspondent.
How can you contain so much hate to a nation and the people who live and believe it? Why don’t you show all the publisher content that slams Israel, posted by publishers? Oh, yeh – your blog is a one-sided “truth” – so please don’t talk about “quality journalism”.
Thanks for your blog, Richard.
I always learn something new when I read one of your posts.
It is amazing how much stuff goes on “under the covers”.
BuzzFeed does this sort of thing for many, many clients with great results compared to banner ads for instance. These clients include such big names as GE, Intel, Virgin Mobile, Target, Buick, British Airways and more. They’re actually pretty forward about it. You can glean more info at http://www.buzzfeed.com/advertise – it’s actually pretty interesting and they talk about how iand why it works through their blog at BuzzFeed U. (same link).
Richard Silverstein says
@ pea: It’s entirely different selling a product than selling a cause. People understand that a company would use such a tactic to sell a product. But a non profit organization usually doesn’t use product marketing to “sell” its mission. A country is not an air conditioner or a smartphone. It should be promoted differently. And btw, it won’t work. It may sell cars, but it won’t sell a country that is “damaged goods.”
Of that I have no doubt, and even Adelson says he’s unconvinced that this effort will be able to change minds. But a typical Buzzfeed post is seen and shared by about 75,000 people so one might think that this has the ability to sway minds that don’t have a strong opinion. As for journalistic integrity, this sort of advertorial content is acceptable as long as it is marked as such. I think BuzzFeed can do a better job distinguishing this sort of content from regular content, but anyone with any intelligence can figure all that out pretty quickly. And oddly enough, rethink Israel is sharing a platform with BF Middle East Correspondent Sheera Frenkel ( http://www.buzzfeed.com/sheerafrenkel ) whose reporting has never shied away from being critical of Israel – her post on the Pope’s visit to Bethlehem was viewed nearly 50,000 times. Other Israel related BuzzFeed posts are not exactly fawning in their nature, so at least there’s that attempt at even handedness. RethinkIsrael seems like a vanity project – the images they publish in their twitter and Instagram feeds are years old and taken exclusively from Shutterstock – not exactly what I would call organic… in any case, treating Israel like a brand and divorcing it from religion and politics simply presents an unrealistic view of Israel and only serves to preach to the choir. But I guess Adelson can afford that!
Think of this as any other tourist commercial for countries you can find in CNN or a newspaper. Maybe this “ReThink” organization is selling here a product – a product of educating about Israel or coming to this state to see for yourself how people talk, connect and feel about issues.
In any case, when someone visits a site like BuzzFeed and sees lead articles like “This Is What Happens When Women Look At Their Vaginas For The First Time” or “23 People Who Should Never Be Allowed Near Pizza” – I doubt serious journalism is what they are looking for.
Piotr Berman says
Sushi story was in ynetnews.com, with many comments.
First of all, Vancouver metro area has 600 sushi restaurants, quite a bit more per capita than Tel-Aviv. Second, only 10% of these places are kosher, which may be related to plans of the Interior Ministry to expel all the foreign chefs by the end of this year. Some commenters complained why are chefs to be expelled, rather than Russian prostitutes. My suspicion is that the latter are either kosher or can be made kosher with rabbinical supervision. The official reason is to free workplaces for the citizens.