You Can’t Make This Up

A publicist’s email snafu reveals the lax editorial standards — allowing sources to review copy before publication and writers to concoct fictional scenarios — at the Forbes contributor network and riles music journalists

His goal was to make everyone happy. On May 11, a member of the Forbes contributor network reached out to Savoy Jefferson, a publicist for the actor and musician Leon Thomas, so he could send his copy for the subject of his stories to review prior to publication. “This has been a long process, but I am so happy with the two stories that came out of it. A profile for Forbes. And a surreal odyssey with Mark Twain and the golden spirit of capitalism. Remix Magazine wants to publish the second. I’m sending it to Leon first for approval and changes, and I’m keen to publish the piece with them,” he wrote. “Leon has final approval over both pieces; won’t move forward with a single word without him loving it.” (We’re not publishing the Forbescontributor’s name because he’s relatively new to professional journalism and seems oblivious to the ethical norms he’s broken.) Jefferson took a few days to review the story before writing, on May 15, “read the Forbesstory and we are good to go on that one, will have feedback about the Remix Magazine story by EOD tomorrow.” He also suggested a title: “Leon Thomas Is A Student And A Master In Business And R&B.” The Forbes contributor replied, “Wonderful!”

But when Jefferson replied to the thread on Monday, May 22, asking about publication timing, he accidentally sent it to everyone in the “SJPR PRESS” Google group, which includes many other music journalists. Reactions were less than pleased. “My first gut reaction was disdain. It felt icky. Journalism isn’t supposed to be a collaboration in this way,” wrote Billboard and Rolling Stone contributor Sowmya Krishnamurthy in her Substack. “If these are the kinds of pieces being green-lit, it makes it exponentially harder for the rest of us because artists and their teams expect an inordinate amount of control and oversight.” Some recipients reacted more directly, picking out the Forbes contributor’s phone number from his email signature. “A lot of people called me and were angry,” he told The Fine Print. “They would say, ‘I don’t want to lecture you,’ and then they would lecture me.”

In his view, the standard of not showing your work to the subject before publication shouldn’t apply to the kind of culture journalism he specializes in. “I think it’s decently standard practice. If someone has a problem with that, then they think they’re doing harder news journalism than they’re doing,” he said. “I’m doing — and most people who’ve commented are doing — journalism about musicians, not even breaking news or wrongdoing. I’m doing profile work. I feel very comfortable making sure an artist is gonna approve it and be comfortable with the story running.”

The call to lower standards for culture coverage rings false for more experienced entertainment journalists. “I strongly disagree with the notion that because it isn’t ‘hard-hitting’ journalism, the story isn’t required to be met with basic standards,” Gerrick Kennedy, a GQ and Rolling Stone contributor who was one of the recipients of the thread, told The Fine Print. “From reading the thread and seeing the level of autonomy the writer afforded the subject and their team, I wouldn’t feel confident that what I’m reading isn’t simply fiction signed off by the team. I would have no issue with that, as long as we are being clear that it is indeed fiction, and not a profile. Even a fluff profile should meet basic journalistic standards and there was a lot of language in the thread that strongly suggests that this is not how the writer was operating.”

Neither Savoy Jefferson nor Leon Thomas’s manager responded to requests for comment. But Jefferson sent a mass email, later obtained by The Fine Print, to music journalists on Monday after conversations about the thread started circulating on Twitter. “This email was a part of a larger conversation and does not accurately depict the entire situation,” he wrote. “To clarify no approval was given nor were changes made for either of these pieces however one was a work of fiction & literature that required additional insight and feedback related to client ongoings as it is a collaborative piece.”

Forbes vice president for corporate communications Christina Vega Magrini told The Fine Print, “Forbeseditorial guidelines prohibit contributors from sharing copy with subjects prior to publishing.”

But that was not the understanding of the contributor. He said that copy approval is a standard part of his process and that the people overseeing his work at Forbes were aware of that. “If Leon Thomas or any subject goes, ‘I don’t want this story to run about me,’ I won’t run it because I’m not writing stories about people I don’t like. I’m writing stories about people I want to praise,” he said. “I like to hear what artists say. Often, they’ll be like, ‘Hey, I said this. I’d like to elaborate on it this way.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I don’t want to go forward with saying that,’ or ‘I don’t think that descriptor is accurate.’ And I like to incorporate those if it’s not a matter of public interest, if it’s just a matter of my personal taste or saving their feelings.” Did an editor at Forbes specifically sign off on this? “Yeah, we’ve chatted about the whole process before,” he said.

According to the contributor, the surrealist semi-fiction story discussed in the emails was completely separate from the Forbes story. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what they were reading. They didn’t understand some of it was fictional, and the rest was for a piece which is experimental and opinionated in a way that I gotta make sure that my subject’s comfortable with that,” he said. Though he noted, “I’ve published surreal fiction on Forbes a bunch.”

The contributor’s author page shows he’s published 40 pieces at Forbes since February 2022. In the deks that appear on the author page, several of his pieces, the most recent of which was published on March 2, are described as “surrealist pop-music portraiture” or a “surreal fairytale.” The stories themselves — which do not display the dek text or any other disclosure that they are works of fiction — contain lyrical imaginations of musical artists preparing to perform, replete with inner monologues and metaphorical purple prose that would be at home in a college literary magazine.

Rather than seeing semi-fictional stories as egregious journalistic malpractice, the Forbes contributor thinks he’s exploring a new journalistic form. “I didn’t go to media school or anything, but I come from a school of journalism that likes fiction a lot. I personally feel comfortable as long as it’s flagged up top in the piece, or somewhere in the piece, or even if it’s just pretty clear from the piece, as I think a lot of mine are,” he said. Can he name any forebears? “I wouldn’t say there’s much of a tradition at all, I’d say I made a lot of it myself. When I say I come from a School of Journalism, I’m talking about Faulkner. I like the kind of journalism he did,” he said, citing what is potentially Hunter S. Thompson’s paraphrase of the Nobel-winning novelist to describe his Gonzo Journalism: “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.”

His inspirations span cultural hierarchies outside of standard journalism. “I like to be inspired by Scooby Doo episodes and other sort of mediums that were surreal and brought in real celebrity stars, like Space Jamfor example. So I’ve done that with a bunch of musical artists and that’s one thing I was doing there,” the Forbes contributor said. “I want full permission on everything from the artist, because it’s a fictional piece of work. I want their likeness to be portrayed in a positive manner.”

The Forbes contributor said he explains that this is his modus operandi when pitching elsewhere. Sometimes, as with a GQ digital piece he wrote last year, he runs up against editorial standards. “GQ isn’t comfortable with those kinds of stories and I’ve talked to my editor about that,” he said.

What should his takeaway from this situation be? “While I don’t love that an email snafu turned into a fair amount of online punching down for the writer, I do think there’s an opportunity for a vital learning lesson here,” Kennedy said. “We have seen entertainment journalism, specifically music, headed in this direction for quite some time. There are artists who do not want to engage journalists or be challenged in any fashion and the core job of a publicist is to secure as much coverage as possible for your client, so I absolutely understand the appeal of what appears to be a low stakes piece that moved the writer and didn’t require much involvement from the subject or their team. Given the fact that there are less opportunities for press as outlets continue to shrink, far too many outlets are operating under these contributor models that are essentially content farms not adhering to any basic standards.”

Launched in 2010, the Forbes contributor network turned a brand already marred by its credulous capitalism into, perhaps, the most notorious content farm among legacy media properties. It has produced routine embarrassments for the publisher, including persistent accusations about contributors asking potential subjects to pay thousands of dollars to appear in stories, at least one business baldly built around getting stories on the site, marketers unleashing a flurry of content billed as journalism, and accusations of reputation laundering for disgraced figures including Jeffrey Epstein. HuffPost shut down its own unpaid contributor network in 2018. “Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy,” then editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen wrote in her announcement of the decision. That same year, newly appointed Forbes chief content officer Randall Lane announced reforms to their contributor network, primarily guaranteeing contributors minimum monthly payments of $250. “What we’re doing with these guarantees is offering some certainty to encourage people to post,” he told The Wall Street Journal at the time.

Within the Forbes contributor network, the contributor said, “I’m a 50-dollar-an-article SEO machine,” so he tries to aim for something more artistically satisfying. Clearly, that hasn’t worked out in this instance. Neither of his stories about Thomas has been published.

Update, May 25: According to a statement issued Thursday by Forbes vice president for corporate communications Christina Vega Magrini, “Forbes has ended its relationship with the former contributor … because he did not follow our editorial guidelines.” Contradicting the contributor’s comments to The Fine Print earlier this week, the statement adds, “Contributors are told not to share paragraphs, sentences, captions or headlines with a subject before publishing, and that practice was never approved by a Forbes editor. Nor did a Forbes editor approve publishing anything that was not accurate and verified.” Asked if he had any comment on the Forbes statement, the contributor told The Fine Print, “I’m proud of my work, and I’ve received appraisals more meaningful than I could have ever asked for this early,” citing appreciative tweets from his subjects. As of this update, 18 stories which he’s described as “surreal fiction” remain on the Forbes contributor network.