Jul 1 1997

‘The Power of the Press Has a Price’

TV Reporters Talk About Advertiser Pressures

Sixty years ago, reporter and press critic George Seldes wrote in Freedom of the Press that advertisers, not government, are the principal news censors in the United States. Not only do advertisers pressure newspapers to kill or alter stories, he concluded, but newspapers censor stories out of deference “toward the sources of their money” without being told.

Sixty years later, advertisers are still muscling newspapers. A survey of 55 members of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers at the society’s 1992 conference revealed that advertiser pressure was common. Eighty percent reported that the pressure was a growing problem, and 45 percent knew of instances where news coverage was compromised by advertisers. “Business journalists have always struggled against advertiser pressures, but our members are telling us it’s getting worse,” said Sandra Deurr, the business editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and former society president.

A survey of local news editors described in Advertising Age (1/11/93) found that automobile dealers were the most frequent sources of pressure. “They want all stories involving auto sales to have a rosy outlook,” one editor observed, “and they whine about negative economic stories, even if they’re on a national level from AP.”

Advertisers appear to be muscling broadcasters as well. In Los Angeles, veteran KCBS-TV consumer reporter David Horowitz was let go in 1996 after automobile advertisers repeatedly complained to management about his stories on car safety. According to Horowitz, management had first tried to stop his investigations with comments such as, “I’m concerned about the story not because it’s right or wrong, but because it may cost us advertising.” According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder (2/12/96), Chicago’s WLS-TV killed a story on fire hazards in Ford vehicles because it “didn’t want to risk offending auto dealers who advertise heavily on the station.”

Pressures Are Common

To determine whether these actions are typical, I sent a questionnaire about advertiser pressures to 241 members of Investigative Reporters and Editors employed at commercial television stations. The questionnaires asked reporters about advertiser muscling of their news operations and their stations’ responses to these pressures. Only one IRE member at each station was sent a questionnaire, thereby eliminating duplicated answers. Just under 50 percent of the questionnaires sent out were completed and returned.

Nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported that advertisers had “tried to influence the content” of news at their stations. The majority of respondents also reported that advertisers had attempted to kill stories.

Moreover, the responses show that advertisers tried to use monetary leverage as part of their pressure. More than two-thirds reported that advertisers threatened to withdraw their advertising because of the content of news stories. Forty-four percent of the respondents reported that advertisers had “actually withdrawn advertising because of the content of a news report.”

The responses of reporters at large and small market stations did not differ. For example, 75 percent of respondents at large market stations reported that advertisers had “tried to influence the content” of news stories, compared to 74 percent of respondents at small market stations. As for whether advertisers had actually “withdrawn advertising because of the content of a news report,” 44 percent of reporters at stations in both large and small markets responded affirmatively.

Comments made on the questionnaires suggest that automobile dealers are a major source of censorial pressure. One respondent wrote, “It would be interesting for you to take a look at the role car dealers play in governing what’s said about them by local television. They are practically untouchable.”

Citing another censorious industry, one reporter noted that “we are currently battling with the local restaurant association and the members who advertise on our station whether we should air the city’s weekly restaurant inspection ratings.” The reporter added, “In this instance, my bosses are backing me.” Grocery stores and “lawyers who advertise on television” were also mentioned as sources of pressure.

Successful Censorship

Of course, the more important question is not whether advertisers have directly pressured television stations, but whether the stations have yielded to the pressure. Questioned whether advertisers “succeeded in influencing a news report at your station,” nearly as many said their stations had capitulated (40 percent) as had withstood the pressure (43 percent).

Two questions addressed the issue of self-censorship. Asked whether there had been “pressure from within your stations to not produce news stories that advertisers might find objectionable,” 59 percent of respondents said there had been. One respondent wrote, “I have experienced direct pressure from my general manager (with no defense from my news director) to not only ‘tread lightly’ on advertisers, but also to be careful about ‘our corporate neighbors in the community.’ Disgusting!”

A reporter in California, who claimed to have been sacked for offending advertisers, sent a copy of a memo he received from his news director, reading, “If you’re involved in a story which you know might reflect badly on an advertiser, please let me know, so I can give sales a ‘heads up.’”

Several respondents provided in-depth descriptions of the internal pressures at their stations. One wrote,

I’ve found that many general managers at TV stations (including my own) are former TV sales people and therefore know the advertisers very well. It is common for advertisers to call a station and express their “concerns” about a story. While I have never been asked to lie or mislead viewers, I have been asked to soften a story an advertiser might find objectionable.

Another commented that

I’m not sure if “pressure” is the right word. It’s probably better described as “story steering.” For example, if a story is suggested on car dealers, something might be said like, “There’s a lot better things for us to look into, don’t you think?”

Similarly, one reporter wrote that direct pressure wasn’t applied at the station, but there was “just a general understanding to avoid a specific area.”

Eager to Please

As for whether there had “been pressure from within your station to produce news stories to please advertisers,” 56 percent of respondents reported that there was. Several reporters wrote comments about this pressure. The most frequent comment suggested that “sales people come in and request stories be done on their clients” or that sales people set up “interviews and tell us about them after they’re promised.” Another wrote there was pressure “to interview advertisers on positive stories and not on negative stories with the guidance of management.”

Other reporters painted a less benevolent picture of the pressure to produce stories to please advertisers. One wrote that the

pressure to produce stories to please advertisers is commonplace and intense. An example—a reporter is doing an annual “Valentines Day Gifts” feature. Management will strongly suggest visiting a florist that advertises with the station. The reporter also described an incident where the news director told a business reporter to do a story on an advertiser, saying, “We have to do a story on this. I know it isn’t news, but this is a huge account.” The reporter knew she had no choice and did the story. . . . These types of incidents happen on a weekly, if not daily, basis to varying degrees.

Another reporter provided a directive that had been handed down by the news director:

From time to time, we do stories where we need an expert of sorts . . . no one company or person in particular, just someone who knows about a certain subject. Sales has asked me to check with them in those situations, feeling that . . . we might as well call on one who does business with the station. So, whenever it’s one of those situations (like we need a realtor, we need a bail bondsman, we need a coffee shop owner), please give sales a call and see if they have someone who’s available and media friendly.

As for the sources of internal pressure, 35 reporters specifically mentioned the sales manager or sales department as being the source of pressure, 23 mentioned the general manager or “management,” and nine mentioned the news director.

A Little Help From Their Friends

While other groups try to influence or suppress coverage, advertisers wield a unique economic club over television stations by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw advertising. However, advertisers do not exert the pressure by themselves. As one respondent wrote:

The pressure comes from outside the station and within the station and often the two sides are working together to either kill stories or alter them. I know of an instance where a sales executive actually met with the focus of an investigative report over lunch and told him what the story would be about. How did the sales executive know the content of an investigative report before it aired? A news executive told him.

Not all news executives have sold out, of course. But with pressures for greater profits, the incentive to produce news stories that will either please or not offend advertisers is great. The problem was summarized by an investigative reporter, who wrote:

The pressure from outside influences doesn’t bother me; it’s always been there and I suspect it always will be. However, there seems to be a frightening trend for the powers that be at corporate [headquarters] to give in to that pressure and pretend everything will go on as before—business as usual.

Unfortunately, in many cases, that’s all it is, Business. A gold-card advertiser can keep the dirty secrets secret and in some cases keep their victims in the dark. Those victims are our viewers who expect more and many times rely too much on the so-called power of the press.

What they don’t know is—power has a price, and it’s for sale.

SIDEBAR: Muscling Magazines

Testifying before the Federal Communications Commission in 1965, an executive of Procter & Gamble, the nation’s largest advertiser, made it clear that his company had strict standards about where it put its ad dollars: “There will be no material in any of our programs which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless, and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation,” P&G’s man testified (Ben Bagdikian, Media Monopoly). “Special attention shall be given to any mention, however innocuous, of the grocery and drug business as well as any other group of customers of the company.”

Procter & Gamble’s policy of determining what was acceptable media content might have been an exception to the rule 30 years ago, but it isn’t today, according to a report by G. Bruce Knecht in the Wall Street Journal (4/30/97). Many large advertisers, including Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., Ameritech and Bell South, now demand that magazine publishers provide them with prior notice when an issue in which they are advertising contains “controversial” stories or opinions. To assure that publishers comply with advertisers’ demands concerning story content, the companies’ advertising agencies send notices to publishers telling them about their rules concerning content.

A letter sent to publishers by PentaCom, Chrysler’s advertising agency, stated, “In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler Corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” The Young & Rubicam advertising agency also admitted that it warned publishers about producing stories it “considers antisocial or in bad taste,” while an Ameritech spokesperson said the company steered clear of “anything controversial.”

Advertisers are not bluffing about pulling advertisements, the Journal’s Knecht noted. Sports Illustrated lost more than $1 million in golf ball ads after doing a story on lesbian golf fans at the Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Springs. Ford pulled six months’ worth of car ads from The New Yorker after a full-page pitch for Mercury ran next to a story that quoted Nine Inch Nails’ explicit rock lyrics.

As a result, publishers are more and more responsive to the demands of their advertisers, Knecht reported. A recent casualty was a short story in Esquire about a gay man who writes college term papers in exchange for sex. The story was killed out of fear that it would violate Chrysler’s rules about controversial content. What will get the ax next? Perhaps a positive profile of Ralph Nader, or an expose about Chrysler’s lobbying efforts against safety and environmental legislation?