In November, Uproxx editorial director of music Caitlin White published “Breaking Up In Joshua Tree Helped Me Understand My Own Twisted Heart,” originally under the third-person headline “A Writer Finds Loss And Rebirth In A Road Trip To Joshua Tree.” The post was a true original, alternating intense and writerly passages about sex and love and the desert with what appeared to be outright product plugs.
Now, sponsored content is everywhere, as are aggressively overwritten personal essays. But rarely if ever had they been fused into such a whiplash-inducing whole.
Here’s how White described ending her toxic relationship in the desert:
If the desert won’t bleed it out, nothing will. For me, the desert obliged, easily sweating out my five-month obsession over him, with a couple of tequilas and his careless tongue. Commitment is something that most people falling in and out of hookups fight over, but no one made my hopes for it feels as cheap as he did. Sex is not love; loving gestures are not love; pretending like they are because you’re lonely is not love.
You want someone to show you who they really are? Take them to the desert and watch them crack open, brown and scaly in the sunlight, bleach dry, wind-whitened, scary with thirst or oversaturation.
And here’s White linking to Buick.com so you can buy a “gorgeous little convertible” exactly like the one in which she found solace that weekend.
For the trip, I’d acquired the use of a gorgeous little convertible, a bright cherry red Buick Cascada convertible. It felt so good to hide inside the luxury of this speedy, flashy car. I could’ve happily driven it for the rest of my life, I think. Heading out into the middle of nowhere felt safer with Wi-Fi inside the car, and, maybe I thought the car would cover up whatever insecurities I felt in myself. On the way there, it almost felt like it did. On the way back, I was happy to have a car that felt foreign and small, to speed away in.
Here’s White bemoaning the loss of her relationship:
On the one hand, it wasn’t surprising at all. All the men I love have never loved me enough to stay, or say it, or live it. This is my infinite loop experience with men, ouroboros. On the other hand, it was shocking, since his love was palpable in almost every action he took. Days of entwining our lives more and more meant my hopes had built into a glittering, beautiful treasure.
And here’s White linking to the hotel at which she stayed. (In addition to this passage, all of the photos of the hotel and its pool in the post were provided “via courtesy of the Fairfield Inn & Suites.”)
Many people go to Joshua Tree to seek peace, I went to go to war with my heart. None of this was his fault, really, but mine. After the battle was done, I felt thankful for the reliable, sturdiness of the Fairfield Inn & Suites, where we were staying. It’s located right off the Twentynine Palms Highway, near to the heart of the national park without being in the mess of tourism — affordable, clean and quiet. I needed that comfort.
There is something to be said for a hotel that’s close to the action, but slightly off the beaten path. The Fairfield was comfortable and steady — and it had a killer pool. God Bless that pool. It was a cleansing oasis, mid-breakup.
Journalists and writers take free stuff and travel from corporations—if not often, then not rarely either. It’s even, occasionally, necessary. But readers are usually offered transparency. If White truly believes that the Fairfield is reliable and sturdy, or that the Cascada is gorgeous, it’s still incumbent on her to disclose to readers that she got a free hotel room and car for the weekend. This is no small thing, because so much potential reader trust relies on knowing the difference between a paid endorsement and an independent product review.
Uproxx admits that this is a particularly egregious case on two counts: it slipped through the cracks of the typical editorial channels that would have caught it, and the writer went rogue and made the deal with the brands on her own. (At a publication of Uproxx’s size, advertising departments would want to know about any arrangements like this before they made it to the site—especially since they may have existing deals with those brands’ direct competitors.)
Uproxx’s editor-in-chief Brett Michael Dykes told Deadspin that “The Joshua Tree post you inquired about was born out of direct interaction between brand PR and a staffer. Our advertising/sales department was in no way involved with the production of the story. There was no payment made by the brands mentioned in the piece to Uproxx or anyone on our staff. Additionally, there was a bit of a breakdown in our typical editorial vetting process with this piece. It’s been addressed with the parties involved and we’re moving on.”
In an email, White told me, “To be clear, I have never accepted payment or anything else in ‘exchange’ for a story, but I do work closely with brands to make sure I have a full understanding of what I’m going to write about for the site.”
“My Joshua Tree post, in particular, was mocked online,” White told me. “That’s one of the potential downfalls about writing personally online, especially when you’re a woman. I took the critiques to heart and will continue to learn and grow as a writer and editor. Thankfully, I have supportive, enthusiastic and gracious managers, who know I will make mistakes and continue to help me grow.”
Despite Uproxx confirming to us that the post was born from a PR pitch and Buick confirming to us it had loaned White the car, the story still contains no disclosures.
How Uproxx has addressed it publicly is by quietly deleting some of the more egregious plugs. The excerpts above are how the post originally appeared—it contained direct links to Fairfield and Buick. Those links and the words “Buick Cascada” have since been removed from the post.
Strangely, the earliest version of the post available on the Internet Archive from November 14, 2017 (the post was published the day before) doesn’t include a link to Buick; that link was added in some time between then and November 16, when it first appears in the cached version.
From publication until at least November 16, part of the post read, “For the trip, I’d acquired the use of a gorgeous little convertible, a bright cherry red Buick Cascada convertible.”
Some time between November 16 and December 2, that sentence was changed to “For the trip, I’d acquired the use of a gorgeous little convertible, a bright cherry red convertible.” Here’s how it looks on Uproxx’s site now.
The Fairfield link was pulled from the post before the Internet Archive picked up the post on November 14, but it was still in there at some point when Twitter user @teamsweeting took a screenshot:
Drew Magary copied and pasted the exact same text for a post that week on what he called White’s “Fart Catalog entry.” From that, here’s the link to the Joshua Tree Fairfield’s booking site that White used. It appears to be an affiliate link, which records how much traffic the Uproxx post has sent to the Fairfield site.
The words “reliable, sturdiness” have been cut from the post, and the current version of the post doesn’t have any links to the Fairfield Inn & Suites in the body, though it still does in its photo captions. Here’s how it looks now.
On the left is the original caption of an Uproxx Life Instagram post from the trip, and on the right is how it reads currently. Both include #sp (for sponsored), but “#ThanksBuick” has been removed in the current version.
Fairfield Inn & Suites’s corporate parent, Marriott, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Buick did. A spokesperson from Buick told Deadspin that they’re very careful to delineate between sponsored content and “loaning of vehicles to media for evaluation.” When asked which category this post fell under, Buick responded, “That story is the result of a media evaluation loan and was not sponsored;” when I asked if it was standard practice to send a review car to a music editor, they told me that “Cars play a major role in modern culture and as a result we loan to a diverse range of writers.”
Dykes, the Uproxx editor-in-chief, strenuously denied that any Uproxx writers have engaged in the type of payola reported on by the Outline earlier this year and by Gawker in 2013: brands paying writers money for undisclosed mentions on major sites. But payments come in other forms, obviously—like, say, a convertible and a free hotel room for a weekend, with a combined value in the hundreds of dollars.
White primarily writes about music and runs Uproxx’s music coverage. According to her author page, she wrote 459 posts in the last eleven months. 446 posts were about music, and 13 were not. I asked Dykes about six of those 13 posts which seemed suspiciously brand-friendly, and he told me that “None were sponsored ... all assigned/edited by the editor who oversees our Life vertical and not things that Cait did on her own, like the Joshua Tree post.”
But if you generously exclude the one post in which White brags that a host “treated her like a queen” with weed and a helicopter ride—but which does not include a clear acknowledgement that both were paid for—none of these stories include any disclosures about travel or products.
For a recent story about how to prepare your apartment for an Airbnb stay, White tagged Brooklinen (sheets) and Casper (mattresses) in her tweet. (A Casper spokeperson tells Deadspin that they send products to journalists “as requested” for reviews and have a “strict disclosure protocol that they insist all of their partners use to clearly disclose any content that is sponsored.”) For stories about traveling to Panama and Costa Rica, she tagged the resorts and a PR agency on Instagram. (The FTC continually reminds “influencers” that regulations require them to disclose their relationships with brands they plug.”) In the Panama story, she linked directly to a hotel’s booking site and called it the “perfect place to stay.” There is a story about making cold brew coffee at home; it is solely about one brand of cold brew coffeemakers, Dripo.
Dykes told Deadspin that the Panama and Costa Rica trips and weed helicopter were coordinated through the Life section editor and “travel PR folk.” Spokespeople from Airbnb, Dripo, Brooklinen, Imago Galleries, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Burner, Tabacon Resorts, Westin Playa Bonita, and Diamond PR did not respond for requests for comment. Grey Space Art said that they did not provide the helicopter ride.
Dykes is right when he points out just about all publications—except for the New York Times, which famously refuses junkets and perks—“accept comps and media rates, and/or pieces from freelance writers who received comps or pitches. Travel writing and travel publications probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.” White pointed us to the Uproxx travel writing policy, which contains many of the same justifications.
But readers should know if what they’re reading is in any way a product of the subject, to say nothing of a financial investment by the brand. In entertainment and product journalism, some assistance is inevitable. What’s required is not self-denial but transparency.