On BuzzFeed, Boogers and Ethics

Writing a story about someone else’s booger feature is no easy task. On some email requests I put a simple, bland, “request for comment.” On others, I went for shock value: “BuzzFeed’s booger post.” It wasn’t plotted. I imagined some might find it funnier than others.

On Tuesday night, BuzzFeed‘s Benny Johnson took Washington’s political and media worlds by surprise by creating a GIF feature about House Speaker John Boehner allegedly checking out his boogers. BuzzFeed Political Editor McKay Coppins promoted the story, even guided readers to it on Twitter.

The headline reads: “John Boehner Looks at His Boogers During the State of the Union.”

Who among us would have the mental fortitude to look away from a Boehner booger post? “It looks like a first-step by BuzzFeed into honest coverage,” said former TWT Editor and Public Affairs exec Sam Dealey. “After all, everyone — the Speaker, the public and evidently BuzzFeed’s reporter too, was bored by the speech and looking for anything even remotely more interesting.”

Boogers are interesting. But by and large, the editors and journalists around town that we interviewed opposed the booger post. “Dumb and dumber; political coverage as booger op? What next: beaver shot?” asked Washingtonian‘s media writer Harry Jaffe. WTOP’s Jim Farley also expressed journalistic outrage. “I believe it is over the top,” he said. “It would have been like showing video of George H.W. Bush throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister at a State Dinner. A private moment.  Would we show video of Michelle Obama’s skirt blowing up on a windy day?”

Um, there’s actual video showing Bush throwing up? As it turns out, there is.

And by the way, there’s no judgment here. We’ve written about everything from Larry King passing gas on air and a journo popping a zit at a party to females showing ample amounts of cleavage and breasts on TV. Suffice it say, BuzzFeed can write about the Speaker’s alleged boogers if they want to and there won’t be any ethical bitching from us.

And yet we couldn’t help but wonder, is this, in part, the psychological result of our miniscule attention spans and around-the-clock reporting? That we now require boogers to grab our collective attention?

“Poking fun at people in power has always been been part of political journalism,” Coppins told FishbowlDC when asked to comment on the matter. “Dead-tree newspapers used to do it with political cartoons; now the internet does it with GIFs and memes. What actually struck me most about this State of the Union was how many other news sites were competing with us on that front. A year ago, we would have been the only ones GIFing Marco Rubio’s reach for the water bottle; this year we were racing with The Atlantic‘s Twitter feed.”

But some journalists thought BuzzFeed had slipped beneath themselves. “That’s certainly a headline you don’t see every day,” said a longtime Washington editor who preferred to remain anonymous. “But regardless, this is over the line. A classic example of something that gets hits, but is in poor taste. The post appeals to the 10-year-old in all of us, and that’s not a good thing. BuzzFeed is better than this.”

A cable news insider agreed, saying, “I think it’s a tacky and juvenile post that undermines the legitimacy of BuzzFeed’s actual reporting and the journalism industry as a whole.  If that’s what it takes to grab eyeballs these days, I need to start looking into a new profession.”

The Washington Examiner‘s Executive Editor Stephen Smith took a more seasoned, business-minded approach, saying, “Schoolboy humor aimed at BuzzFeed’s demographic, but not appropriate for mature audiences.” And PBS Political Director Christina Bellantoni cautioned against reading too much into GIFs. “It’s BuzzFeed doing what it does well, but I would say that GIFS are a little misleading,” she said. “If it was video you’d have a better sense of how quickly this supposed peek actually happened. Perhaps it’s a teaching moment like Sebelius’ elbow?” (During a White House presser with Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius, NBC’s Chuck Todd sneezed, causing her to teach him how to properly sneeze into his elbow so as to not spread germs.)