Feb
01
2014

14th Annual Fear and Favor Review

Owners and advertisers vs. journalism

Extra! cover, February 2014As new models for funding journalism are explored, some people are raising concerns about how foundations, for example, might unduly influence the content of the news they underwrite  (CJR.org, 5/22/12). Such questions are valid, but they shouldn’t be taken as suggestions that such arrangements threaten novel encroachments on a now-pristine field.

It shows how inured we’ve become to news brought to us by private corporations, who in fact care very much about the content of the news they sponsor or, as outlet owners, produce—that it not be too downbeat, or provide a platform for anyone asking hard questions about corporate America, and that it generally be in line with the priorities and interests of the sorts of people advertisers want to sell to, i.e., not the poor or people of color. (See Extra!, 1/00.)

Increasingly, even that is not enough. Advertisers and owners want a seamless experience in which ads and news are blurred (see sidebar) and news consumers aren’t sure whether the stories they’re seeing have been paid for or independently generated. We should ask questions about new media models, for sure—but those same questions need to be asked of the model we’ve been using.

As ever, Fear & Favor is far from exhaustive, but only indicative of the sorts of pressures journalists face to do something other than journalism. As always, it’s offered in tribute to those reporters who still remember who it is their work is meant to serve.

In Advertisers We Trust

• The Orange County Register and three local universities seem to hold different ideas about just how much of its integrity the paper has sold. UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University paid the paper $275,000 a piece in exchange for a year’s worth of “feature stories, events coverage, personality profiles and other light fare” (L.A. Times, 3/30/13), along with a series of ads. But while publisher Aaron Kushner says the schools will get no say in the content—“We are going to cover these places the way we always have”—the schools have a different take. “We look at it as a marketing opportunity,” a UCI rep said, an idea likely based on the paper’s pitch, describing the sort of stories to expect: “Focus on achievement and success; needs to reflect the excellence of UCI.”

• The Washington Post Magazine’s August 11 Education Issue, in the words of Post blogger Erik Wemple (9/5/13), “came out a bit on the thin side.” That’s to say it had only one article about education. Two other articles were planned: one on college drinking and one about whether Virginia’s public universities would start providing benefits for gay and lesbian couples. The pieces were dropped after complaints from the paper’s ad department.

Asked what was up, executive editor Martin Baron said the pieces had been published elsewhere in the paper, but that the special issues need to have a “service-
oriented” mission. Wemple translates: “Conceived to be friendly to the relevant industry,” these themed issues are “often filled with content that makes for pleasant adjacencies to advertisements from companies with a stake in the topics at hand. Editors know not get too edgy with their story choices, lest the business side lose all credibility with their accounts.”

F&F1

• The launch of Defense One, a news and analysis website aimed at the “national security community,” was underwritten by military technology giant Northrop Grumman, but a spokesperson for publishers Atlantic Media says it will feature “the disruptive combination of intelligent, indispensable journalism and leading edge digital expertise” (Mediabistro, 5/14/13). Possibly not too disruptive, though; the site that editor Kevin Baron promises will “shine a critical light on lesser-known facets of a national security world that most never see” (Defense One, 7/15/13) will be free to 
readers, “looking to marketers to make it profitable” (Niemanlab.org, 5/9/13).

The Bosses’ Business

1600 copy• A corporation’s use of its news programs to promote its other interests is a conflict, even if it’s dubbed, as in NBC’s case, “Project Symphony.” The L.A. Times’ Joe Flint (1/12/13) noted some results of the approach, like the network’s efforts to promote the sitcom 1600 Penn. The (defunct) news magazine Rock Center (1/10/13) did a segment on the show, while Meet the Press host David Gregory (1/10/13) interviewed its star. Flint also cited Jay Leno, of NBC’s Tonight show, showing up on Meet the Press (4/22/12), and that show’s uncharacteristic coverage of the Stanley Cup. (NBC has TV rights to hockey.)

Had he written his piece in November, he could’ve added “Why We [Heart] Vampires” (11/1/13), which the network called an “NBC News Special.” Tied transparently to the NBC drama Dracula (which aired afterwards), the show was described as “a collection of fun, comedic interviews accompanied by entertaining clips from our favorite vampire moments.”

F&F3ABC made room in the nightly newscast (ABC World News, 10/28/13) to tell viewers about a new cable channel, Fusion, produced by, as it happens, ABC, in partnership with the Spanish-language Univision. “Tough interviews and tough topics,” anchor David Muir reported, “but they’re hoping to make us laugh, too. Doing for news what Modern Family has done for entertainment, reflecting all of America’s next generation.” No points for guessing which network produces Modern Family.

Dayton Daily News staffers knew that parent company Cox Media Group was “integrating” its print, TV and radio operations—but they may not have known what it meant for them. They got the memo in the form of an actual memo (JimRomenesko.com, 11/4/13) from Cox editor Rashida Rawls, after the paper ran a review of the fall TV schedule:

The wire filler story on D2 of today’s Life section cast all of the TV networks, including CBS, in a negative light. Our news station—WHIO-TV—is a CBS-affiliate station. We do not want to run any stories that cast our station in a negative light or even allude to it negatively.

“Remember,” Rawls added, “we are better together,” no doubt sending reporters to the dictionary to check their understanding of the word “better.”

Bloomberg News reporters Michael Forsythe and Shai Oster worked for months on an investigation into hidden financial ties between a Chinese billionaire and high-ranking Chinese leaders. But in the final editing stage, they were told it wouldn’t run (New York Times, 11/9/13). “If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,” editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler reportedly said.

An employee told the Times’ Edward Wong that Winkler was “speaking from a news perspective,”—worried that reporters would be denied visas to the country, a sanction China has imposed before—“not a sales perspective.” But financial news terminal subscriptions are “the main revenue generator” for the outlet’s parent, Bloomberg LP, the Times noted; and after a previous critical article, also by Forsythe, Chinese “officials issued orders to some Chinese companies to avoid buying” them.

Winkler raised more eyebrows by comparing the decision to “the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany.”

Winkler denied the stories were spiked. After the Times story ran, however, Forsythe was suspended, and then left Bloomberg (New York Times, 11/19/13, 11/8/13).

• It isn’t only Chinese billionaires that can expect special handling from Bloomberg News. With founder Michael Bloomberg on his way out as New York City mayor, the outlet reaffirmed its bizarre ban on reporting on him (Fortune, 12/13/13). “I see no reason to change a policy that was conceived at the inception of Bloomberg News and has served us well,” Winkler said.

The company presents the ban as a way to avoid conflicts of interest, but it’s led to such oddities as the outlet omitting Bloomberg, arguably the 10th richest person in the country, from a published ranking of global billionaires. “Similarly, the company’s coverage of the financial data industry doesn’t include Bloomberg,” Fortune noted, “even though it has the single biggest share of that market.”

• The technology website CNet has a reputation as an independent reviewer of products and services, but CNet’s parent, CBS, isn’t as big on that as its readers might be. The site had planned to give a “best-in-show” award to a device called the Dish Hopper—a DVR feature that allows viewers to skip the ads in recorded network programs—until CBS nixed the idea (Washington Post, 1/14/13). CBS, along with NBC, ABC and Fox, is suing the device’s maker, and cited the lawsuit as reason to remove it from consideration.

CNet senior writer Greg Sandoval quit over the incident. But the Post’s Paul Farhi raised a valid question: “If CNet was really interested in editorial independence, why hand out awards to the companies it covers in the first place?”

• You’ve probably heard about the campaign to get the Washington, D.C., football team known as the “Redskins” to change its name to something that isn’t a racial slur. But that’s not for lack of effort on the part of the team’s owners to keep you from hearing about it. A radio spot produced by the Oneida Indian Nation was soundly rejected by D.C.-area station WTEM (“No way!!!!!!!” wrote station exec Lewis Schreck—USA Today, 9/6/13.)

No surprise there; WTEM is owned by the team’s unapologetic owner, Daniel Snyder. But other stations might hesitate to discuss the controversy because, while not owned outright by the team, they are its “media partners.” For an annual fee, “partner stations receive special access to players, coaches and team facilities, and sometimes the right to broadcast” games (Washington Post, 12/6/13).

The flip side: Area stations WJFK and WUSA, which decline to give the team “seven figures” a year, “both say their requests for interviews with star players are regularly rejected.” Partner stations like NBC4 insist their own reporting is not compromised, but the Post found several questionable cases, including the paper’s own sports columnist, Mike Wise, having his appearances on NBC4’s “Redskins Show-time” cut back after he took a public stand against the name.

Walking, Talking Conflicts

CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated had their own problem with the D.C. football team. They allowed reporter Seth Davis to send out multiple tweets in support of ESPN’s Rick Reilly’s claim that the name “honors” American Indians and only bothers white people. “Unless I missed it, I don’t see a groundswell of protest from Native Americans against ‘Redskins,’” Davis claimed (Indian Country, 10/10/13)

Until pressed, Davis neglected to mention that his father, Lanny Davis, had been hired as a “crisis manager” by team owner Daniel Snyder. “Seth’s a lifelong Washing-ton sports fan expressing his opinion,” Sports Illustrated’s Scott Novak told Indian Country; his followers “are aware he’s a proud son of Lanny Davis.” A CBS Sports rep said they’d “look into” whether or not Davis should have disclosed the connection when he weighed in on the issue.

• Some reporters transgress journalistic borders while others seem blissfully unaware of them. Chicago Fox affiliate WFLD-Channel 32 has the latter on their hands in the person of Susanna Negovan. A daily contributor to the morning newscast Good Day Chicago, Negovan brags about the free products, from purses to spa services, she gets from companies she covers. Says a co-worker, “She doesn’t even have the smarts to shut up about it” (RobertFeder.com, 12/15/13).

F&F4In December, Negovan reported on a private party held by Tiffany & Co. she attended with her husband, a reporter for Tribune Broadcasting’s WGN-Channel 9. “We probably each had about a thousand dollars in wine and champagne,” and the company delivered a crystal vase to her house beforehand. “Which is so cool before a party to actually receive like a gift.”

But wait, there’s more: Negovan (a graduate of Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, if you wondered) has another job as publisher/editor of a Sun-Times Media supplement called Splash, and uses her news job to stump for that, too. One segment reported a party she attended at the home of supermarket CEO Robert Mariano, a “folk hero,” viewers were told, whom “everybody loves.” Mariano is one of Splash’s biggest advertisers.

• Many Chicagoans howled to read in the New York Times’ DealBook blog (7/15/13) that the much-criticized deal privatizing their city’s parking meters created a system now “considered one of the world’s best.” Such public/private partnerships, wrote Kent Rowey, “are the ideal solution for the fiscal problems plaguing many American cities.”

That would be news to the Chicago Tribune (“The more you learn about the costly obligations cooked into former Mayor Richard Daley’s parking meter deal, the worse it gets”—6/2/13) or the Chicago Reader (“As the reality of the deal sunk in, the public was outraged”—6/6/13). But then, those papers weren’t writing about their own handiwork—unlike Rowey, who forgot to tell readers that he had worked on the deal as a lawyer in the energy and infrastructure practice at New York firm Allen & Overy. Reuters’ Cate Long (7/15/13) notes that the “sloppy journalism” could’ve been avoided had anyone at the paper so much as clicked on his law firm bio.

Power Players

• The publisher of South Carolina’s McClatchy-owned paper The State made veteran sportswriter Ron Morris promise, in writing, to “never again write about [University of South Carolina] Gamecocks football or talk about the USC program on TV and radio shows” (JimRomenesko.com, 9/11/13). Why the “journalism restraining order,” as one ex-colleague put it? Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t like him.

Calling him a “negative guy,” Spurrier had already declared he wouldn’t hold press conferences with Morris in the room, at which point his bosses told the reporter to stop asking questions. When Morris complained about the prohibition on a radio show, Spurrier threatened to quit, at which point the journalist was ordered to stop attending press conferences. Finally he was removed from the beat.

The State found someone else to cover the Gamecocks—reporter and “self-described superfan” Glenn Snyder, who says “I love Steve Spurrier.” As well he might. As the thin-skinned coach told Romenesko, “I did call The State newspaper and put in a good word for him, and they hired him.”

Sidebar: ‘Native’ Advertising: Another Word for ‘Deceptive’
by Peter Hart

Journalistic ethics have traditionally separated the news-reporting and ad-selling functions of media outlets, with the ostensible goal of keeping the news uncorrupted by financial considerations.
But in the digital age, media outlets are fashioning a different set of rules. Concerns about the blurring of the line between the reporting and business sides of a media operation are now seen as quaint, a dispiriting idea made clear by the industry enthusiasm for what’s called “native advertising”—commercial messages that fetch a higher price because they’re deliberately designed to look like news.

The Atlantic attracted controversy (FAIR Blog, 1/16/13) when the magazine published “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” Labeled “Sponsored Content” but formatted to look like a blog post, the piece was a paid spot from the Church of Scientology puffing the religion’s leader.

The Huffington Post strikes “partnerships” with major advertisers to sponsor specific sections linked to their products—sections that “pair content written by the brand and content written by Huffington Post reporters independently” (New York Times, 4/8/13).

JacksonBoxbThe Washington Post (2/1/13) pointed out that some popular sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker get much, if not all, of their revenue from advertising made to look like content. Buzzfeed’s native ads, for instance, are labeled as presented by “a BuzzFeed ‘featured partner.’ The words ‘ad’ or ‘advertising’ are nowhere.” Gawker explains to prospective advertisers that the outlet’s “in-house writing talents handle your post from ideation to execution, infusing your brand message with our signature, conversational tone.”

JacksonBoxaIt’s not just “new” media. The Washington Post plans to run native advertising not only on its website but in the print edition as well, according to Ad Age (8/27/13): “The ad units on offer include one the Post calls an ‘agenda setter,’ wrapped around a portion of the front page and featuring both display advertising and copy resembling editorial content.” Post chief revenue officer Kevin Gentzel explained that this was “to create experiences for brands in places in the printed pages where there wasn’t formerly advertising.”

The gossipy Playbook feature from Politico editor Mike Allen is a must-read for media and political insiders. It also attracts big-time advertisers like the US Chamber of Commerce and Goldman Sachs, which place short ads that look very much like the rest of the feature’s newsy tidbits. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple (11/20/13) reviewed how the advertisers were treated in Playbook and elsewhere on the Politico site and found that “the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of Playbook.”

So the advertisers get out a message that looks like coverage, and then get additional fawning coverage from the outlet they’ve paid for advertising. Ads that look like news copy and news copy that reads like an ad: It’s the best of all possible worlds—to an advertiser.

Extra! February 2014