The recent decision by General Motors to pull its advertising from the Los Angeles Times has not gone over very well.
“Blame the press,” Daily Variety scoffed in mid-April, after several days of publicity about the automaker’s move. “That’s the latest coping mechanism for General Motors, whose slumping share price and falling profits have generated a wave of negative media coverage. ... GM isn’t the first Fortune 500 company to retaliate against a newspaper’s editorial coverage by taking a punch at its ad division. But most companies understand the tactic just doesn’t work; it only generates more bad coverage.”
In the Motor City, the Detroit News business writer Daniel Howes told readers that the monetary slap at the L.A. Times exposes “GM’s thinning corporate skin.” Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam had this to say: “On the one hand, the decision, which may affect up to $20 million in ad spending, sends a powerful message to the Times. On the other hand, it sends a powerful message to the country about the idiots who are running GM.”
Drawing more attention to GM’s financial woes, the ad-yanking gambit is likely to backfire. But news outlets are far from immune to advertiser pressure.
By coincidence, the conflict between General Motors and the L.A. Times went public just as a new report highlighted the media clout of advertisers and other powerful interests in business and government. The media watch group FAIR (where I’m an associate) released the results of its fifth annual “Fear & Favor” report on “how power shapes the news.”
The FAIR report, by Peter Hart and Julie Hollar, provides context with sobering information: “A survey of media workers by four industry labor unions found respondents concerned about ‘pressure from advertisers trying to shape coverage’ as well as ‘outside control of editorial policy.’ In May , the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a survey of media professionals that found reporters concerned about how bottom-line pressures were affecting news quality and integrity. In their summary ... Bill Kovach, Tom Rosensteil and Amy Mitchell wrote that journalists ‘report more cases of advertisers and owners breaching the independence of the newsroom.’”
Among the examples in the new “Fear & Favor” report are these gems:
Such incidents are low profile, in contrast to the recent General Motors move against the Los Angeles Times. But the most insidious instances of advertiser pressure are the ones we never hear about -- implemented with winks and nods or the simple tacit understanding that the media business is, after all, a business. In the mysterious case of why mainstream news outlets aren’t more aggressive in challenging corporate power large and small, Sherlock Holmes would probably conclude that the most profound clues are to be found when the media dogs don’t bark.
We hear the least about the most pervasive media filtration -- when thoughts go nowhere because journalists have been made to understand the limits of their profession in the present day. Advertising is part of the corporatized atmosphere that sucks the oxygen out of the newsrooms. The sound of an idea being smothered in its crib doesn’t rise to the decibels of a bark or even a whimper. And media consumers don’t know what they’re missing.