The limits of Internet research

“Rule number one of the Web: You don’t mess with The Oatmeal"

Internet research helped Buzzfeed contributor Jack Stuef unmask @ComfortablySmug, the Twitter account that earned ire for posting false information during Hurricane Sandy. Stuef was praised for his work then. But his latest attempt to write a profile based solely on Internet research did not go as well.

Stuef’s target this time was Matthew Inman, the man behind the wildly successful cartoon website The Oatmeal. Inman’s ability to create shareable, viral content is not unlike that of Buzzfeed, and Inman’s big moment in the sun this year came after his rabid fanbase helped him raise over $200,000 for charity in response to a defamation suit filed against him. “Rule number one of the Web: You don’t mess with The Oatmeal,” Mashable’s Lauren Hockenson wrote.

For all of Stuef’s Internet research, it seems he didn’t read that article. When Inman drew criticism for putting a rape joke in a recent cartoon, Stuef used it as the peg for a profile of Inman and his business model, arguing that the cartoonist’s funny little comics were actually keenly targeted marketing ploys designed to maximize traffic, power, and profit:

Unlike that of most successful webcomic artists, Inman’s work was not originally a labor of love, a slow process of honing one’s voice, developing an original perspective and take on the art form, and eventually building an audience. It was always a business, always a play to known sources of Web traffic, whether for clients or for himself.

Stuef was never able to actually interview Inman for the story.

“I wish Inman had responded to my requests for comment. It would have been a stronger piece,” Stuef told CJR in an email. But he didn’t, so Stuef relied on Internet research to compile the profile instead.

He’s not the first nor the only reporter to do this, and it worked well enough when it came to @ComfortablySmug, so why not?

Here’s one reason: The “obscure profile page” Stuef dug up that said Inman had a wife, kids, and decidedly Republican beliefs wasn’t actually Inman’s. It was someone pretending to be Inman. Stuef only realized this after he posted the article.

“Obviously, I regret the errors, but we did make a correction to the piece soon after it was published,” Stuef said.

Not soon enough for Inman, who grabbed the original, uncorrected article and posted it in its entirety to his own site, adding rebuttals to any of Stuef’s points he found incorrect or exaggerated — basically all of them. “This article … is so blatantly wrong it borders on being libelous,” Inman began. After demolishing Stuef’s piece, he turned to Buzzfeed: “You question the integrity of my writing, and you do it on Buzzfeed. Seriously, BUZZFEED. This is not an honest review of my work … This is pageview journalism. This is character assassination. And this is shit.”

But Inman wasn’t finished yet. He then did a little Internet research of his own on Stuef, coming up with a joke Stuef wrote at his previous job at Wonkette that made fun of Sarah Palin’s son (the post is no longer live). No, not the 23-year-old Army reservist; the toddler with down syndrome.

“He’s certainly free to criticize me for it,” Stuef said; “I did the same soon after I wrote it.”

Stuef’s piece on The Oatmeal is an interesting look at Inman’s empire beyond the crude drawings and charity fundraising stunts, and some of Inman’s rebuttals fall a bit short. While Inman claims he only did SEO work for a few months in his early 20s, the Guardian piece Stuef cited, written four years ago, when Inman was in his mid-to-late 20s, refers to him as an “online marketer.” Inman’s need to be seen as a simple cartoonist trying to make a living is clear in his response to Stuef; he doesn’t deny that he earned half a million dollars in 2010, but insists that most of those earnings went to his sister and her six children.

That’s great, but his whole “I just want to make comics and get paid for it. The less complicated the better” doesn’t quite ring true when he also, by his own admission, runs a small business (employing an assistant, his mother, his stepfather, and three retired friends of his mother’s, he says) that sells everything from signed prints of his art to lip balm. His claim that he doesn’t have a publicist and it was his mother who declined Stuef’s requests for an interview aren’t true, Stuef says; it was a woman named “Amanda DiMarco.” There is an Amanda DiMarco on LinkedIn as “PR and Business Development” for The Oatmeal. According one of Inman’s pre-Oatmeal blog entries, his mother’s name is Ann.

But none of that really matters, since Stuef screwed up by relying on a fake profile. The gaffe calls the accuracy of the rest of his reporting into question and set him up for an incredible shredding from his profile subject. Stuef maintains that, while he regrets the error, Inman’s refusal to participate in the profile caused this to happen.

“I was depending on past reporting and interviews, as he declined to be interviewed by me about any of it,” Stuef said. (Neither Inman, nor his mother, nor Amanda DiMarco responded to CJR’s request for comment.)

Real journalism is more than just playing Internet detective. If Buzzfeed wants to be taken seriously as a news source, its contributors simply cannot make these mistakes. Those who do must be held accountable by more than just their profile subjects, few of which have the kind of platform Inman does.

UPDATE: Here’s Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith’s statement on the matter:

The original article had a serious factual error, which we corrected
fully and within an hour of its publication three days ago, and which
we deeply regret. On a personal note, I think some Oatmeal comics are hilarious.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , , ,