Dear Jonah Lehrer and Maria Popova: Just own up and apologize
If you're a journalist or writer making at least part of your living on the Internet, heed this lesson: Don’t lie or mislead.
Pretty simple, really. But, if you have been naughty and you have the misfortune to be caught, you should at the very least follow these simple rules:
- Stop lying, misleading, obfuscating, etc.
- Confess your crime
- Don’t make excuses
- Don’t accept $20,000 from any organization that holds itself up as a promoter of public-serving journalism
- Actually, just don’t accept any kind of “reward” for giving a speech about your lies
- Never lie, mislead, or obfuscate again
- Treat your readers and media peers with respect
The two make an intriguing pair, with somewhat overlapping missions. Even though their misdeeds are vastly different and occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of wrongdoing, Lehrer became "famous" for simplifying neuroscience for the masses, and Popova's site is called Brain Pickings for a reason. She calls it "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness."
Over the past few days Lehrer, revealed as a plagiarist and fabricator, has been back in the news for presenting what has been described as a “weird, slyly self-exculpatory mea culpa” to the Knight Foundation that was a “troubling thing” to watch. Just yesterday, news broke that 28-year-old Popova, author of Brain Pickings – and, like, Lehrer, until recently an unsullied icon of the arts-brainy elite – has been less than forthcoming about all the sources of her blog’s income. Apparently she has been making bank from Amazon affiliate links while at the same time insisting that her “ad-free” site is a labor of love and requires reader donations to stay alive. On every Brain Pickings post, she includes a donation form headed by the slogan “Donating = Loving.”
Popova’s misleading approach to attracting dollars has caused a mini media uproar, with critics calling her out for presenting herself as a humble servant in need of tips to survive while she collects between $240,000 and $432,000 a year from Amazon referral fees alone, according to estimates by Tom Bleymaier, who was the first to pick up on the story. (Popova, however, contests those estimates.) Reuters blogger Felix Salmon captured the prevailing sentiment: “We should be celebrating the kind of money that Popova is making – I certainly don’t begrudge it – rather than seeing her try very hard to make it seem that she’s less successful than she is.”
On her site, she goes out of her way to play for the sympathy of readers, saying the site, the email newsletter, and her Twitter account take "450+ hours a month to curate and edit." That number seems high, because it would mean she spends roughly 15 hours a day on the project, while also editing Explore and juggling contributions to Wired UK and The Atlantic, among others, according to her blog's About page. But, in a letter to Salmon, she does say that the blog is not just how she makes a living – it is her life.
Popova, however, is not helping herself. Just as Lehrer made his critics even angrier by lacing his apology with excuses (too busy, too arrogant, too bright) and false comparisons (comparing a car’s beeping reminder to put on a seat belt to his new commitment to being fact-checked), Popova has come out with a letter to Betabeat in which she basically tries to claim that what she has done is not that bad.
“Yes,” she concedes, “the links are affiliate,” but they change nothing about what she reads or writes about. She doesn’t, however, concede that the affiliate links are basically ads, or even own up to the fact that she pitches the site as ad-free and reader-supported while making a healthy chunk of change through links that are effectively paid for.
Instead, she talks about why she formed an LLC for Brain Pickings (not at issue), complains about an IP problem (off topic), and swears that Brain Pickings is a personal project that costs $3,600 a month to run (fair, but again, not the issue). Then she attacks her critic and comes up with her own definition for the ethics of affiliate links. She gets a kick-back from Amazon whenever a reader buys a book, she says, but: “That is still a direct relationship with readers and, contrary to that guy’s semantically outrageous claims, the very opposite of an advertising relationship.”
That is the only time she addresses the actual issue, and it is there that she reveals her only argument: that Bleymaier’s suggestion that affiliate links aren’t all that different from ads is “semantically outrageous.”
In her letter to Salmon, Popova says Bleymaier hounded her by email about the affiliate links and calls his revenue estimates "ludicrous." "If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted," she writes. "Delighted!"
She also protests that she has disclosed the affiliate links practice in the past – just not on her blog. "I’ve been completely honest about the Amazon links with anyone who’s ever asked – and have many, many, many emails I’m happy to forward – and have brought it up myself multiple times in talks and on Twitter."
Now there's grist for an honest and open debate: Do affiliate links count as advertising? Felix Salmon, for one, says they “are a form of advertising,” and I agree with him. That the ad is selected for inclusion by the author without any pressure from a salesperson and manifests itself as linked text rather than a display unit doesn’t, to my mind, make it not an ad. But Popova has shut down her only chance of engendering sympathy from fair-minded critics who think it’s a blurry question by refusing to engage the topic at all and instead calling such a claim “outrageous.” Claiming that she has brought up the topic on Twitter a few times and told people who have asked about it doesn't pass the minimum bar of requirement for full disclosure.
Worse, she appears to be denying that there's any chance she might be even slightly in the wrong. Popova could have addressed this problem with minimal damage by coming clean and saying “Yes, those are affiliate links, and I now appreciate that it is misleading to suggest that Brain Pickings is totally reliant on reader support. It’s a mistake, I was wrong, and I’m sorry. I’m now including a disclaimer on my site alerting readers to the presence of affiliate links and why they’re there (which, by the way, is exactly what The Next Web does).”
Popova may soon have an epiphany and make amends for her ill-advised response to the criticisms, but, like Lehrer, she has made it much harder on herself.
For the future, I would refer her to rules 2, 3, 4, and 8 from above:
2. Confess your crime 3. Apologize 4. Don’t make excuses for yourself 8. Treat your readers with respect
Update: Popova has updated her donations page to note that she also makes money from affiliate links.