An Invitation to a Live-Action Infomercial

I was invited to a live-action infomercial yesterday.

That wasn’t how it was described, of course.  It was called “the Atlantic‘s fifth annual Health Care Forum,” and it was described as “a series of deep-dive conversations on effective palliative care, promising advances in technology, the ethical complexities looming behind health insurance, and more.” But a live-action infomercial is what it will be. At the bottom of the Atlantic‘s webpage advertising event, you see a group of “Presenting Underwriters”: underwriters

Totally not coincidentally, there’s a representative of each of these institutions listed among the “Featured Speakers” of the event, blended in with journalists, officials and think tank analysts:


That’s what “Presenting Underwriters” are: They’re event sponsors who have paid money to be included in the event as if they had been selected on the basis of having something important to say.  (There are also “Supporting Underwriters,” who are presumably sponsors who don’t get to speak–though one of them, the Partnership for the Future of Medicare, has the president of one of its “partner organizations,” the Healthcare Leadership Council, as a Featured Speaker, along with one of its four advisory board members–so perhaps these underwriters get their money’s worth as well.)

These events are held specifically so that media companies can take money from companies who will pay for the chance to be mistaken for an expert. (For more on this corrupt practice, see “Journalistic Reputations for Sale,” Extra!, 9/09.)

And the media company’s help in fooling the audience is part of what you’re paying for. Here’s how the Atlantic describes its pay-to-play event series:

AtlanticLIVE events integrate the power of the Atlantic brand with thought leaders and engaged audiences to bring current critical issues to life through intelligent conversations. Whether in the form of week-long festivals, multi-underwriter forums or single-underwriter roundtables, AtlanticLIVE events are characterized by meaningful content, unique perspectives and first-class execution by a dedicated team of professionals.

Note the references to “underwriters”–if you were unaware of this phenomenon, would you understand that to mean that these events are staged to provide an opportunity for corporate representatives to take part in what appears to be an educational or journalistic event? That they are, in other words, live-action infomercials? They’re counting on the fact that you won’t.

The thing that puzzles me is why journalists participate in these things–other than the fact that their bosses tell them to, of course. If their bosses told Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta, or features editor Don Peck, or health editor James Hamblin, that the copy they wrote or edited would have to contain quotes written by the magazine’s sponsors, to be slipped in their articles without acknowledgement that these sources had paid to be included, presumably they would be upset. I’d like to think they might refuse–because this would clearly be an unethical form of journalistic deception.

I don’t understand why it’s more acceptable to deceive people face-to-face than it is at a distance.

UPDATE: Michael Freeman of the Healthcare Leadership Council writes to clarify that his organization did not have  an advertorial arrangement with the Atlantic:

Having just read your post on the FAIR website regarding the Atlantic’s Healthcare Forum, I wanted to send a note of clarification regarding your mention of our organization, the Healthcare Leadership Council.

Mary Grealy, the president of the Council, was a speaker at the forum, as you mentioned.  We were not, however, a direct or indirect sponsor of the event.  Nor, until reading your post, were we aware that the Partnership for the Future of Medicare (PFM), of which we are a non-paying partner, was a “supporting underwriter.”  We didn’t have any contact with PFM regarding the Atlantic’s event, nor to the best of our knowledge was Ms. Grealy’s appearance arranged through the Partnership.  We believe that Ms. Grealy was invited to participate in the Forum for the same reason she is invited to speak at a number of similar events, because she is a recognized expert on a variety of health policy issues.

This, of course, has nothing to do with the main thrust of your post, but since it was inferred that the Healthcare Leadership Council may have been part of a pay-to-play arrangement, I wanted to set the record straight.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.