It appears Ezra Klein’s new media startup Vox is taking on many of the habits of old media–like blurring the lines between business and editorial by running a thinly disguised commercial for Comcast, the cable giant that not only seeded Vox‘s initial run, but recently invested $200 million more in its parent, Vox Media, Inc.
The September 8 explainer by Todd VanDerWerff, caught by Gawker’s Sam Biddle, courageously “explains” why Comcast’s policy of bundling cable is actually in the user’s best interest:
“Why is my cable bill so high?” is a question you’ve likely asked yourself at one time or another. Maybe the answer to that question led you to ditch cable for some other service – Netflix or Hulu or a so-called “cable-lite” service like Sling TV. Maybe it led you to reduce your order to a smaller package. Or maybe you just grumbled about it and kept paying. (The numbers suggest you’re in this last group.)
One thing’s for certain, however. You could have been paying a lot, lot more.
Well then! The piece went on to explain that
Cable bundling almost certainly saves customers money in aggregate…
For as little as people seem to like their cable providers, it’s easier for Comcast (speaking for millions) to hold ESPN at that $6 figure than it would be for you or me to do so as an individual.
Or as a photo caption laughably summed up: “Comcast may not be much loved by its customers, but it has the weight of their collective voice in its bargaining over carriage fees.”
You see: Comcast is looking out for you!
The idea that a media outlet partly owned by a cable company would run an article arguing cable policies are actually good for the consumer is bad enough, but Vox didn’t even disclose the rather glaring conflict of interest until it was publicly shamed on social media. The piece, posted Tuesday morning, was later updated to include a disclosure in eight-point type that was only visible when the reader clicked on a footnote:
That cable giants are your friend seems to be a message that Comcast is eager for its customers to hear; another of its properties, CNBC, ran a similar explainer in April showing how a la carte cable was bad for consumers. It also did not disclose the conflict of interest.
Vox Media has had other dubious arrangements, as in February, when Bill Gates “guest-edited” its technology site The Verge while it still reviewed Microsoft products and covered Microsoft business news without disclosure. (Gates still owns $13.6 billion worth of Microsoft.) Nor did Vox mention that the Gates Foundation owns a sizable chunk of Comcast, having purchased 945,000 Class A special shares of the media giant in 2011. Vox routinely runs thinly veiled commercials for the Gates Foundation without mentioning these business ties.
But so it goes in a medium defined by shrinking margins and a move away from traditional ads to more “native,” corporate synergistic partnerships. Was this piece an ad? Who knows anymore, but it would behoove outlets partly owned by media corporations worth $142 billion to voluntarily disclose this fact without prompting.
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.