In late 2012, the morning after the second presidential debate, BuzzFeed published an article titled “The Debate Romney Won,” which floated the Romney campaign’s theory that the Republican candidate “came out on top — horserace analysis be damned” in the October 16 debate. The piece is mostly notable for the decision of its authors, McKay Coppins and Zeke Miller, to grant anonymity to a Romney aide so he could praise his own boss and trash President Obama as “a weak leader.” It is also notable for the fact that, two days after it was published, the entire post disappeared from BuzzFeed’s website.

It’s well known that BuzzFeed has deleted its own writers’ posts for reasons of unfunniness, plagiarism, and even “tone.” But has the rapidly growing site erased reported articles as well? That depends on whether you take BuzzFeed’s word at face value.

BuzzFeed has suggested its habit of disappearing problematic content does not affect the work of its expanding stable of news reporters (such as Coppins and Miller). Last year, for example, the site’s founder and CEO Jonah Peretti defended the deletion of more than 4,000 older posts by claiming that “no reporting was deleted”:

Yet BuzzFeed was unusually reticent about discussing “The Debate Romney Won” (a copy of which was captured by the Internet Archive). Neither its 7-person public relations department nor its editor-in-chief Ben Smith responded to several requests for comment about the post over the past two weeks. Smith suddenly broke his silence only after Gawker reached out to Zeke Miller (who currently writes for Time magazine) on Monday evening. Here’s how that exchange played out:

From: Zeke Miller
Date: Mon, May 4, 2015 at 10:27 PM
Subject: Re: Request for comment from Gawker
To: Keenan Trotter, Ben Smith

Hey Keenan, thanks for reaching out. Looping Ben here who I think figured this out as part of his review. I can’t say I have any recollection of this—by which I mean, if it was a conscious decision I would have remembered. I think they traced this back to a technical issue, but he has the details.


From: Keenan Trotter
Date: Mon, May 4, 2015 at 10:29 PM
Subject: Re: Request for comment from Gawker
To: Zeke Miller, Ben Smith

Hi Zeke, I’ve sent Ben several emails about this over the past week or so, to no avail. Ben—is it true that this was a technical issue?

From: Ben Smith
Date: Tue, May 5, 2015 at 12:02 AM
Subject: Re: Request for comment from Gawker
To: Keenan Trotter, Zeke Miller

Zeke speaks the truth—seems to have been a technical thing.

From: Keenan Trotter
Date: Tue, May 5, 2015 at 12:43 AM
Subject: Re: Request for comment from Gawker
To: Ben Smith, Zeke Miller

What does that mean, exactly? What was the technical issue?

From: Ben Smith
Date: Tue, May 5, 2015 at 9:28 AM
Subject: Re: Request for comment from Gawker
To: Keenan Trotter

It seems to have been deleted in a technical glitch—that’s all I’ve got.

Smith’s explanation is obviously, and perhaps understandably, incomplete. BuzzFeed has not yet concluded its internal review of posts that were deleted some time after January 2012, when the site began its transformation into a news organization. It is also true that Smith admitted, in a memo to staffers last month, that some posts—it’s unclear how many, or of what genre—were “removed by accident.”

If someone at BuzzFeed removed the post intentionally, their motive would not be that hard to grok. Coppins and Miller’s dispatch landed with a thud on Twitter, an integral platform for BuzzFeed’s heavily promoted entry into political reporting. Left-leaning users, in particular, eviscerated the post’s reliance on an anonymous Romney aide to puff up Romney and kneecap Obama. (Indeed, one of the post’s earliest and most vocal critics, the journalist Michael Tracey, was the first person to notice its disappearance. Baffled by the lack of any explanation or editor’s note, Tracey eventually notified Gawker.) Deleting the post, in this case, would have served a very useful purpose: creating the perception that BuzzFeed is immune to low-quality reporting. The site and its investors constantly hype reporting and investigative journalism as integral parts of BuzzFeed’s brand, so this impression is particularly important to preserve.

Now, some people might buy Ben Smith’s vague “technical glitch” statement. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to believe anything BuzzFeed, and Smith in particular, says about its editorial practices. The site’s “Standards and Ethics Guide,” published in January, mandates that “posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content” (bolding theirs). Less than six weeks after laying this rule down, however, Smith ordered an editor to pull a post criticizing the board game Monopoly. A few weeks later, he ordered a reporter to pull a post criticizing the cosmetics brand Dove. Why trust Smith, then, when he says a BuzzFeed news post disappeared due to a “technical glitch”?

If you know any more about this, please get in touch.