So what, exactly, did The Atlantic do wrong?
There's no doubt that its decision to run a gushing advertorial about the Church of Scientology on its Web site placed it in an extremely embarrassing position. As the Internet erupted in outrage and scorn Monday afternoon, The Atlantic quickly reversed field and pulled the piece.
And the prestigious magazine issued a groveling mea culpa:
"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. 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. 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. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge – sheepishly – that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right."
That's a lot of apologizing. But it's awfully murky apologizing. The Atlantic never says exactly how it screwed up.
There's little doubt the intensity of the furor was due to the identity of the advertiser. Scientology is a very controversial outfit with no shortage of critics. If the advertorial had been run by the Lutherans, it's doubtful the reaction would have been quite as heated.
But it seems to me there's nothing inherently wrong in allowing the Scientologists to air their views (the church was trying to get out in front of the release this week of a very tough book on Scientology by Lawrence Wright). Running an ad hardly constitutes endorsing an organization or product. While The Atlantic has every right to turn down advertisers it doesn't want, failing to do so in this case was hardly a sin. Plenty of news outlets run advertorials for organizations that are hardly universally beloved.
The real problem was that the Scientology lovefest looked so much like the regular news content of the site. The only hint that it wasn't an actual Atlantic story was the dainty designation "sponsor content" in a small box above the headline.
Advertorials have never been one of the most uplifting forms of journalistic commerce. But a news outlet's got to make money, particularly in these daunting times. The rule has always been that if you do run the things, you've got to make clear that they are paid propaganda and not part of your own news menu. The Atlantic didn't, and it paid the price in the form of widespread humiliation for one of journalism's most respected brands, ironically one that has proven to be digitally savvy.
It's no surprise that Web sites are turning to sponsored content, often referred to as native advertising. Traditional banner ads have proven to be a very disappointing revenue source. The problem is sponsored content appeals to advertisers because it feels more like news and less like advertising. That can be a very slippery slope. It's crucial to keep the boundary sharply delineated.
The flap over The Atlantic and Scientology is a vivid reminder that standards matter, regardless of platform.