newspapers news industry

Warnings About the News “Industry”

Unlike a lot of other industries that have clear motivations about what’s being sold and purchased, the combined news/advertising industry is problematic. The fact that most publications rely on advertising to support their business introduces complicating factors. They need money to support their operations, and they’ll get very creative in that pursuit. The problem shows up with political reporting, too.

To explain, let’s look at some revealing outtakes from Persuasion in Society by Herbert Simons and Jean Jones:

“. . . former Washington Post reporter Mike Allen (July 3, 2009) brought news to Politico that the Post was offering lobbyists “off-the-record dinner and discussion” with top congressional and administration officials for $25,000 a plate, first on the topic of health care.”

Tim Graham, an online columnist who was critical of that invitation to lure in lobbyists and money complication said:

“the offer – which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters – is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.”

The general problem here is that the “front office” in an industry that’s facing immense pressures with respect to economic viability has been increasingly placing demands on their news gathering organizations. They need to see profits to keep the publications in business. Many a news room has been urged to “think corporate” as they develop their stories. That’s a serious problem if your publication is involved in any sort of truth telling. More from Persuasion in Society:

“executives agreed to run a special issue of the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine devoted exclusively to favorable coverage of a new downtown sports arena. Contractors and patrons were strongly encouraged to advertise. Not disclosed in the news coverage was that the Times was a secret partner in the arena project and that it was to share in the profits from the magazine advertising.”

Here’s the kicker that defines the issue at hand. The book quotes Max Frankel, a distinguished journalist for the New York Times:

“A wall is needed to insulate the gathering of news, which should be a selfless public service, from the pursuit of profit, which is needed to guarantee the independence of the business. Journalism, in other words, is a costly and paradoxical enterprise: It can flourish only when profitable, but it is most suspect when it seeks a profit at all costs. (Frankel, 2000) (my emphasis is in italics)

We’re going to talk about movie product placement later in this book, but it’s worth bringing up here in the context of these book excerpts. Persuasion in Society goes on to say:

“If ever there was a wall between entertainment programming and product advertising, it has long since been broken with the advent of MTV, of kids’ shows specifically designed to promote featured products, and of product displays surreptitiously inserted into feature films. But these deceptions are relatively benign when measured against news that the government has also been attempting to persuade in the guise of entertainment (Romano, 200). A few years ago, the White House negotiated a deal with the television networks, forgiving them an obligation to provide so many minutes of unpaid public service advertising in return for their agreement to insert the government’s pro-social messages into prime-time dramas such as Touched by an Angel, NYPD Blue, ER, Beverly Hills 90210, and Chicago Hope.

We’re going to cover public service deals in popular entertainment further in Part 6 of this book and in our section on transactional journalism in Part 3. Stay tuned. For now, let’s finish out the story with this particular White House dilemma. The book continued:

“Arguably this was a good deal for the networks. Their estimated gain would be approximately $22 million worth of added time for paid advertising. The cost would be a small reduction in their once vaunted reputation for creative independence. Television writers would not be forced to change their scripts, and the government would not be asking television producers to promote its more controversial activities – only to insert into their prime-time scripts subtle messages about the dangers of street drugs and alcohol. Somehow, though, the ethics of this deal seem questionable.

The book notes Georgetown University law professor David Cole’s take on the issue:

“. . . the government is not supposed to favor the content of one message over another when doling out financial benefits to facilitate private speech. They crossed the line between government speech and private speech, and basically coerced private speakers, through the public purse, into expressing government messages in a way that was designed to mislead the American public. The rights the U.S. government violated in this case were the rights of viewers and listeners not to be propagandized in an underhanded way by their leaders (Romano, 2000).

This is just another form of Media Collusion.

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