Revealing the hidden influence behind the news
It’s a fair indication of the current state of play in U.S. media that, in 2012, TV newscasts were acknowledged to be “increasingly seeded with corporate advertising masquerading as news” (Washington Post, 1/3/12)—and the regulatory response was to call, not for an end to the practice of deceiving audiences, but for broadcasters to make note of such arrangements in an online file.
While we work on creating the sort of unfettered news media that democracy requires, calling out compromised reporting as we do each year in Fear & Favor is just another way to note where and why the current system fails us, as
well as to celebrate those journalists who resist prevailing winds to honor the public’s right to know.
In Advertisers We Trust
• You have to hand it to the Long Beach (Calif.) Beachcomber: They aren’t coy. A pitch from the biweekly offered “a professionally written story and optional photos” (LA Observed, 5/24/12), to be purchased at the paper’s “one-time advertising rate.” Once your check clears, “you will have an opportunity to review and change a draft of the story as well as select the run date beforehand.” Finished stories presumably won’t win any prizes, but will be “suitable for framing.”
An earlier memo from Beachcomber editor Jeff Beeler, leaked to Romenesko (4/13/12), outlined the paper’s policy on staged events. “We seldom send reporters and/or photographers to staged events unless (1) it is very, very newsworthy or (2) you are an advertiser in our newspaper and contribute to the expense of those reporters and photographers.”
• While perhaps a poster child for conflict of interest, the Beachcomber is not as much of an outlier as you’d hope. Poynter.org’s Justin Martin (1/26/12) was struck by a section in the January 13 Bangor Daily News, a major state paper, that glowingly detailed the histories of seven Maine businesses. There was no mention of advertising adjacent to the stories, and each carried a byline with the paper’s name. Closer inspection revealed tiny type on the insert’s first page indicating it was an “advertising supplement,” which, Martin learned, focused only on companies that had previously bought ads in the paper.
Martin discovered the Daily News is one of many papers around the country that run such supplements, sometimes called “progress editions.” Editors defending the practice point to slight typestyle differences or small-type disclaimers, but it’s hard to believe they’re earnestly interested in preserving boundaries the practice is specifically designed to blur.
• There was no disclaimer, tiny or otherwise, on the Washington Post’s September 11 two-page spread devoted to a “debate” on energy policy. The discussion featured proponents of oil and gas drilling, but no industry critics, perhaps because it was derived from forums co-sponsored by Vote4Energy.org, a project of the American Petroleum Institute. Post readers weren’t alerted to that fact, though in a forum video posted on the paper’s website, a Post executive credited API, saying the group “saw value in making today’s conversation possible.” No doubt.
After complaints, the Post (9/21/12) promised future excerpts would mention the sponsorship.
• Jessi Lang is a journalist at Motor Trend and a paid spokesperson for Phillips 66, the oil company, “something Motor Trend doesn’t appear to be telling its readers,” discovered Jalopnik’s Matt Hardigree (11/5/12), who deadpanned that “taking payment from a potential newsmaker is a generally frowned upon practice.” Motor Trend editor-in-chief Ed Loh did not respond to Jalopnik’s inquiries. But Lang did: “I get paid by Motor Trend to be a journalist and to help educate others and that doesn’t at all call into question my integrity as a writer,” she said, adding that “anyone within a capitalist society” should be compensated for their work.
• NBC and Boeing have a special relationship. The aerospace company is a top sponsor of NBC’s Meet the Press, “exclusive” sponsor of its app and prominently featured on its website. So mutually invested are the two corporations that Boeing surely doesn’t need to order up segments like the one on NBC Nightly News February 10, in which anchor Brian Williams showed viewers how Boeing pilots testing the Dreamliner 787, a plane that NBC co-owner General Electric makes the engines for, “flew over the country in a way that spelled out 787 and drew the Boeing logo over an eight-state area.” Upping the gratuitousness, Williams added, “Well done, Boeing test pilots.” Cringingly done, NBC.
• Forbes magazine’s decision to run news articles from writers who work directly for advertisers, not for the magazine, was dubbed “controversial,” especially as the stories appear in the same style and format as articles from Forbes’ actual writers.
But controversy suggests at least two sides, and there’s precious few arguing that the “BrandVoice” project produces journalism. Forbes’ Bruce Upbin’s defense (New York Post.com, 10/16/12) was that editors need to “give up” the idea that they’re the only ones “smart enough” to write articles, that marketers have valuable points to make and, weirdest of all, that many of the sponsored posts come from laid-off journalists, who’ve had to take jobs in corporate media relations departments.
• Not all advertisers sell soap; the corporate-bankrolled Campaign to Fix the Debt sells corporate tax breaks and social benefit cuts as the solution to deficits. It’s not precisely clear what went on between Fix the Debt and the influential Beltway newsletter Politico, but it caught the eye of Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone (11/12/12), who noted that Politico’s chief White House correspondent Mike Allen wrote a piece promoting Fix the Debt for his Playbook feature on a Thursday (11/8/12). (It ends with an anonymous quote from “a Fix the Debt official” saying, “Learn more at www. FixTheDebt.org.”) Wrote Calderone: “By Monday, the Campaign to Fix the Debt was sponsoring Playbook, with the email version of the morning newsletter describing Playbook as being ‘presented’ by the new initiative.”
The Boss’s Business
• San Diego reporter Dave Maass (San Diego City Beat, 10/23/12) says the fact that the new owners of the city’s major daily, the U-T San Diego, use the paper “as a propaganda instrument is getting to be old, old, sad, old news.” Still he, and some U-T editors, were surprised by the revelation (AP, 10/21/12) that U-T publisher Doug Manchester was invested in Dinesh D’Souza’s film, 2016: Obama’s America. Maass notes that the conspiratorial, race-baiting film got “significant play” in the paper: two reviews in the news pages, a “particularly batty” favorable editorial, and another article declaring it a “sleeper hit.” The publisher’s investment was never mentioned.
Manchester’s use of the U-T as some-thing like “a brochure for his various interests” also caught David Carr’s eye. The New York Times reporter (6/10/12) quoted a staff member’s comment that the paper’s new foray into TV “is embarrassing. But then a lot of embarrassing things have gone on around here since they took over.”
• It wasn’t really newsworthy that ABC sitcom actress Sofia Vergara was hosting Saturday Night Live in April, but ABC World News (4/8/12) made a news story from it. The network newscast likewise “reported” on the final episode of Desperate Housewives (5/13/12), with anchor David Muir noting, “One of our researchers did the math, 180 episodes, 57 deaths, 21 murders, 47 awards and eight Emmys.”
The self-dealing of such segments might be obvious; they still push serious reporting off the page. Huckstering stories like Good Morning America’s two-part “sneak peek” at a new Disney theme park (sample line: “Imagine being invited to a fairy tale”) should make viewers curious about what the news department wouldn’t do to please the people who pay them.
• What about trumpeting their “good works”? On ABC Nightly News (6/5/12) Diane Sawyer told viewers, “Michelle Obama appeared today with the CEO of our parent company, Disney, because Disney decided to do something historic to help fight childhood obesity.”
The segment reported Disney’s announcement that it would stop running ads for junk food on its kids TV networks and radio programs. “First Lady Michelle Obama calls the move a game changer.”
Only a grump—or a reporter not on the payroll—would point out that the ads represented less than one-tenth of one percent of Disney’s total ad sales (Bloomberg News, 6/5/12).
Government & Official Power
• Journalists show state power inappropriate deference virtually daily—every time an official is granted anonymity solely to insert ideas into coverage without accountability.
The Washington Post (8/17/12) granted anonymity to a Republican campaign adviser to get at the unvarnished truth that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is “a natural champion for the success of the free market system.”
Less banal: When a British investigative group reported the high number of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, the New York Times (2/5/12) gave cover to a “senior American counter-terrorism official” to accuse the group of terrorist sympathies: “Let’s be under no illusions—there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al-Qaeda succeed.”
• Every four years, broadcasters acquiesce to rules for presidential debates that are devised by the two dominant parties to suit their own interests—excluding third-party candidates, limiting questions and possibilities for follow-up. In 2012, Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney debated for a total of six hours, in which time no questions were asked about poverty, inequality, housing, race or racism, criminal justice, drug legalization, labor unions or climate change (Extra!, 12/12).
• Months after the September 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff, it was revealed that two former Navy SEALs also killed were working for the CIA, and that what press accounts had for weeks described as a diplomatic mission or consulate was “at its heart a CIA operation” (Wall Street Journal, 11/1/12). As reported by Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone (11/2/12), news organizations, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post, knew about the CIA’s role in real time, but “agreed not to publish the information at the government’s request.”
The agency “insisted that other lives would be endangered,” the AP spokesperson explained (though the CIA’s presence in Benghazi had been reported previously).
Whatever the motivation, Calderone reminds that withholding information from the public “cedes control of that information to the government, which can release such details on its own terms and when politically expedient.”
• A disheartening New York Times piece (7/15/12) noted a trend: Political sources demanding–and receiving–control over how they’re quoted in news stories.
Quote approval is “commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail,” Jeremy Peters wrote. It’s “standard practice for the Obama campaign,” and Romney advisers “almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything” they want to quote.
Those aren’t the rules you learn in journalism school, but “most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.” In reality, of course, political strategists generally only offer explanations of their political strategies, which explanations are usually themselves political strategies.
• The Texas Observer reported (7/24/12) that Washington Post education reporter Daniel de Vise sent drafts of an article on a controversial standardized test to a source, the University of Texas at Austin. “If you or anyone at the university has any concerns about it, I implore you to direct them to me,” de Vise wrote in an email to the university’s PR office. “I’m one of a very few reporters here who send drafts to sources!”
He’s right about that. Ethicists surveyed by Jim Romenesko (7/25/12) generally echoed UT-Austin’s own journalism professor Renita Coleman: “It’s been a time-honored code that you don’t show sources stories before they run.” One exception: de Vise’s Post colleague, Jay Mathews. “I show all of my stories before publication to all people mentioned to catch errors,” Mathews has said. “Many of my colleagues think this is being too open, but I find people are friendlier when kept in the loop.”
Neither a desire to keep everyone “friendly” nor a “desperate need” to “pick brains” is a good excuse for journalists’ failure to maintain real independence from the powerful social actors it’s their job to scrutinize. (And Mathews’ claim aside, it’s improbable that less influential sources are regularly shown the same deference as bigger players.) But some reporters push back.
Joe Davidson’s October 22 article for the Washington Post reported findings from the congressional Office of Compliance (OOC) of a “sharp increase in discrimination and other complaints in the legislative branch at a time when the Compliance Office has fewer resources to deal with them.” More than half were about discrimination or harassment based on race or color. (The numbers apply to all legislative branch offices, including the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress.)
Readers may not have been shocked by the news. But Davidson’s addendum was unusual:
Note: I requested an interview with [OOC executive director Tamar] Chrisler to explore these issues in greater depth but was told that any comment from the interview wanted for the record would have to be e-mailed to the OOC for approval. That’s unreasonable, and journalists must push against such restrictions by public officials.
The AP’s Meghan Barr reported (10/10/12) on new homeless shelters in New York City, a response to “unprecedented” crowding in existing shelters. The story, focused on a shelter on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was disturbing, and then there was this:
The city’s Department of Homeless Services initially agreed to speak with the Associated Press for this story and allow a reporter to interview people inside the shelter. But after learning that the AP had interviewed homeless residents that weren’t hand-picked by the city, the department abruptly canceled an interview with the commissioner and refused to answer any questions.
By not just resisting efforts at restraint but making them part of the story, journalists give readers a bracing glimpse at the mostly unrevealed pressures that shape the news every day.