Church and State

Finding the courage to maintain integrity

In 1920, the radical writer Upton Sinclair compared American journalistic practice to the “brass check” by which whorehouse clients selected their partners. In that era, proprietors of coal mines, railways and steel mills owned many newspapers and bribed others to advance their interests. Sinclair thought the press of his day was in the pocket of vested industrial interests, not only because they were big advertisers but because they held financial and political power in their home communities.

Today the nonjournalistic business considerations that enter into management’s judgments on critical issues are more diverse and infinitely more powerful. They entail relations with government, with advertisers, with audiences and with elements in the media organization itself. Balancing the resulting cross pressures often requires difficult, painful and courageous ethical decisions.

American reporters have faced the threat of jail when they have refused to reveal confidential sources, but they are rarely forced to exhibit physical courage of the kind required by their counterparts in countries like Colombia or Algeria, where newspeople are murdered routinely. Examples of courage are harder to find when it carries less severe penalties. In recent times, two investigative reporters, The Arizona Republic’s Don Bolles, Manuel de Dios Unanue of New York’s El Diario/La Prensa, have been murdered as a result of their reporting on organized crime—but such instances of vengeance are rare.

The most often mentioned illustrations of journalistic courage involve the people at the top of organizations that have uncovered news that endangers the health or even the survival of the enterprise. Few such instances are widely publicized, perhaps because courage is manifested routinely in publishers’ support of their newsrooms’ investigations.

Consider the most frequently cited cases: Edward R. Murrow’s exposé of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (according to Murrow, CBS management’s reaction was, “Good show. Sorry you did it,” but they stuck by him), Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation of the Watergate break-in, Seymour Hersh’s revelation of the My Lai massacre, The New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. All of them involved intrepid and resourceful reporting of buried information that presented a threat to powerful political figures or institutions. But all also required the support of media chief executives who weighed their civic responsibility against their enterprises’ material interests. (President Nixon wanted to divest the Washington Post Co. of its valuable television franchises.)

The process of balancing journalistic and business imperatives is never simple when it involves the public’s right to know deadly national secrets. President Roosevelt tried to press treason charges against the Chicago Tribune’s Robert McCormick when he published a story that revealed to the Japanese (though they apparently did not understand it) that the U.S. had broken their naval code. In contrast, Orville Dryfoos, the publisher of The New York Times, withheld an already published report of the CIA’s preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion because he thought this would not be in the national interest. He later regretted his decision. Similarly, the NBC Nightly News killed a report on U.S. satellite spying when Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger called to say it would endanger the lives of American agents. The story turned up in The Washington Post two days later. The Pentagon’s public relations arm wanted the story kept secret so that it could be released on its own timetable, to demonstrate the military’s technical achievement.

Warren Christopher, when Undersecretary of State in 1980, at the behest of the Saudi ambassador, asked the Public Broadcasting Service to withhold the airing of a British documentary, “The Death of a Princess,” on the grounds that it might provoke a new oil crisis. At PBS Lawrence Grossman held firm, and there were no repercussions.

As technology blurs the distinction between print and electronics, the success of media businesses depends increasingly on the decisions of government, embodied in regulations, legislation and judicial rulings. This must make the people who run them more sensitive to the political effects of their news coverage. As political advertising has become a considerable component of television revenues, politicians have found it increasingly necessary and expedient to court the media, creating a new source of pressure on journalists.

Media overlords rarely give direct orders to kill or slant stories. They do not have to do that in order to let it be known what their views are and where their interests lie. They hire and fire editors and producers. Almost imperceptible Pavlovian cues reinforce desired behavior and inhibit what is unwelcome.

The head of an individually or family-owned media business may be more willing to take risks than the chief executive of a publicly held company worried about the reaction from Wall Street. But in today’s corporate economy, editorial independence does not always jibe with the demands of the bottom line. Following the general trend in American business, media companies have merged into larger and larger organizations, including many with operations outside the media business. The very size of these companies makes their managements less vulnerable to the kinds of advertising pressures that beset smaller media organizations. But it also gives them a large stake in the status quo and broadens the possibilities for conflicts of interest, as in NBC’s ownership by General Electric, a huge defense contractor, and Liberty Media’s links to AT&T;, with its dependence on the favors of legislators and government regulators. Even giants who vigorously compete in some spheres of activity enter easily into joint ventures, thereby extending the boundaries of their corporate interests. In 1998, ABC News discarded an investigative report that raised embarrassing questions about hiring and safety practices at Disney World. ABC News and Disney World are, of course, owned by the same company.

In 1995, CBS’s “60 Minutes” dropped an interview with a disaffected executive of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. who accused the company of manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to maximize their addictive effect. When the story came out, the network’s defense was that it faced the serious threat of a libel suit. CBS’s then principal owner, Laurence Tisch, was also the main stockholder of Lorillard, another tobacco company. The RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris companies, which own huge food and beverage businesses, are among the largest television advertisers. It is clearly impossible to determine what considerations entered the minds of the CBS executives who decided to kill the interview. It was ultimately broadcast, long after the episode had received widespread attention, but it strains credibility to suggest that there were not other factors in their thinking besides the threat of a lawsuit. The story was well covered by the trade press at the time, thus providing support for the notion that legitimate news cannot be suppressed in a competitive media environment. It was brought to even wider public attention in somewhat embellished form by the 1999 film The Insider.

Corporate interests have become ever more global in scope and therefore more sensitive to pressures from the state apparatus of countries where the owners of American media companies do business. When a Singapore court imposed a heavy punitive fine on the International Herald Tribune for printing an article on government nepotism, the paper accepted the judgment with the knowledge and consent of its owners, the New York Times Co. and the Washington Post Co. There was a powerful pragmatic reason to do so: it could not otherwise continue to print at that strategically crucial location.

News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who sought to bring pay television to China through his satellite Star TV system, invested heavily in a joint venture with the official People’s Daily. He removed BBC World News from Star TV after China complained about its objective coverage. His book publishing house, HarperCollins, published a laudatory biography of Deng Xiaoping by Deng’s daughter but canceled HarperCollins’ contract to publish the memoirs of Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor and a strong critic of the Communists. The editor of the publishing house was suspended and gagged. These scandalous actions created a sensation in the British press, except in Murdoch’s Times, where it went unreported for a week.

The conflict between the editorial and business sides is still often thought of in terms of stark and brutal impositions of power, prompted by venality, political ambition, personal friendship or idiosyncrasy: a publisher suppressing a scandalous news story about a major advertiser, planting a puff piece for another, demanding slanted coverage of an electoral contest, insisting on publicity for a favorite charity or actress. Episodes of this kind still happen but, with a few egregious exceptions, the American press in recent years has generally sought to report news without conscious bias, regardless of the opinions expressed on the editorial page.

This principle has become more widely followed because of the attrition in the number of competitive newspapers, diminishing the partisanship that once characterized the press. Monopoly newspapers necessarily must be cautious in avoiding offense to any segment of their audience: they consider their entire market their constituency, and readers and advertisers always have alternatives to the newspaper.

Although this prompts them to be objective in their reporting, it may also encourage them to shape their content by marketing criteria rather than by editorial judgments. There has been widespread acceptance of the notion that the press is just another consumer product and that success comes from giving the customers “what they want.”

As a result, hard news has a diminished presence. Straight news stories fell from 52 percent of major news media content in 1977 to 32 percent in 1997, while gossip, scandal, celebrity and other “human interest” stories rose from 15 percent to 43 percent, according to a study of leading newspapers, the three major network TV newscasts and newsmagazines Time and Newsweek. The study, conducted by The Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Medill News Service, found that the emphasis was on “news you can use.” TV magazines primarily featuring lifestyle stories have replaced documentaries.

In television news, the race for ratings has always been the pre-eminent factor in editorial judgments. Television news has long been an element in the flow of entertainment, packaged to attract maximum audiences. Network and station managements have rarely come from the news side, and the traditional journalistic values have meant little to them. GE’s president, Jack Welch, proposed that the network NBC, which GE owns, exact a charge from publishers whose authors were interviewed on the “Today” show. On local newscasts, which get the bulk of the news viewing, producers are mainly preoccupied with the attractiveness of the news readers, their costumes and background sets.

The cosmetics draw attention because they appear to affect the audience ratings, which are important only because news media are economically dependent on advertisers. And from the advertisers’ standpoint, it seems perfectly reasonable to avoid positioning sales messages next to objectionable content. (Airline ads are routinely pulled from newspapers when planes crash.) A 1998 survey of advertisers, conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, found that 94 percent “want to be notified in advance of any potentially controversial editorial or program content.”

But how far can the avoidance of counterproductive juxtapositions go before it becomes censorious or punitive? “We vote with our dollars,” said an automobile dealer displeased with a Minneapolis radio station’s consumer report. Chrysler required that magazines carrying its ads notify it in advance “of any editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” Esquire magazine, anticipating Chrysler’s reactions, cut a short story with a homosexual theme. The resulting publicity led to a flood of protests and to the resignation of the fiction editor. Chrysler eventually withdrew its requirement. Ford dropped its advertising in The New Yorker for six months after obscene rap lyrics were quoted in an article adjacent to one of its ads. IBM withdrew its advertising from Fortune after the magazine ran an unflattering article about its chairman and CEO. Cosmopolitan was censured by the American Society of Magazine Editors for running ads for a cosmetics line next to an article dealing with the same branded products.

Of 60 publishers surveyed by Editor & Publisher in 1999, virtually all could cite instances where an advertiser had pulled advertising or threatened to do so because of a complaint with the paper’s news coverage. One publisher in five said that a newspaper might sometimes consider altering a negative story that affected an advertiser, but nine in 10 said their own papers had never done so. It takes courage not only to maintain editorial integrity but to adhere to an editorial vision. Media are not only reluctant to offend advertisers; they shape their content to please them. Magazines and cable channels are established to appeal to particular segments of the public that are thought to have value as niche marketing targets; their content is directed to those interests that serve advertisers’ purposes.

The purpose of journalism is to disseminate information and ideas. The purpose of marketing is to maximize revenues, which may be done by creating ancillary products that provide new uses for existing assets—as when newspapers set up Web sites or publish books based on articles and photographs in their archives—or by creating new editorial sections that are designed to attract extra advertising whether they deal with a county fair, mutual funds or fall fashions. There has been an explosion in the number of such sections, often created by the paper’s advertising department or turned over to an independent contractor who sells the advertising and provides the text.

In magazines and more recently in newspapers, “advertorials” carry not only display advertisements but especially prepared text supporting the advertisers’ messages; though labeled as advertising, they are easily mistaken for an integral part of the editorial product. It has even been proposed that advertisers be allowed to “sponsor” certain standing features of a newspaper, like the weather report or baseball box scores, much as they can sponsor a radio or television broadcast.

In films and television shows, product placement blurs the distinction between commercial and noncommercial elements. Brand names and logotypes intrude into strategic positions in sports arenas and adorn the names of stadiums and theaters. On the Internet, colorful and cleverly designed banner ads become almost indistinguishable from the surrounding texts and icons. Even The New York Times Book Review list of best sellers carries a link to the Barnes & Noble Web site. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop attracted criticism when it was revealed that his Web site, ostensibly a source of authoritative health information, plugged a service in which he had a financial interest.

Is the modification of a newspaper’s mix of contents to serve the marketing objective of increased readership qualitatively different from the creation of editorial sections that serve the marketing objective of bringing in increased advertising? Where is the line to be drawn between such sections and those that have long been run on automobiles and real estate or that once made newspaper food pages an outlet for manufacturers’ publicity releases?

What is the proper relationship between a news organization’s news and business functions?

The old question became newsworthy late in 1999, after a fierce reaction to a special issue of the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Magazine devoted to the just-completed Staples Sports Center. Advertising profits were to be split with the Center, which is a subject of continuing news coverage. Former publisher Otis Chandler, who had built the Times into one of the world’s great newspapers, said its editorial department had been “abused and misused.” The Times’ new publisher, Kathryn M. Downing, apologized, and the paper ran a brilliant and extensive dissection of the episode by its media reporter, David Shaw. A few months later, the Chandler family sold Times-Mirror to the Tribune Co., and both Downing and Editor Michael Parks left the scene.

Newspaper publishers and editors reacted to the original story in strikingly different ways. Half the publishers surveyed by Editor & Publisher considered the Staples Center deal “acceptable.” This view was shared by only one-fifth of the 105 editors who responded. Seven out of 10 editors say they should have ultimate authority on editorial decisions; eight out of 10 publishers claim that right.

A third of the publishers report that their papers have had promotional tie-ins or revenue-sharing arrangements with people or institutions they cover in the news. More than half believe that newspapers should publish special sections to obtain more advertising even if the subject is of little reader interest. This is misleading; even a small special interest group of readers may represent a valuable advertising target.

Editorial independence can best be maintained when readers contribute significantly to the cash flow and when advertisers are many and diverse. In today’s media environment, these conditions can no longer be taken for granted. As the Internet reshapes mass communication, established media are hard-pressed to maintain their competitive positions and fulfill their traditional functions. They must cut costs and scramble for income in order to survive.

Corporate and agency consolidations make all major media dependent on a reduced number of decision-makers who produce an ever larger share of total ad billings. Publications that formerly relied on readers to provide a substantial part of their revenues, and thus cushioned themselves against advertising pressures, have become increasingly dependent on advertising. The business press now relies largely on free (“controlled”) distribution; three-quarters of weekly newspaper circulation is free. Circulation has fallen steadily as a percentage of daily newspaper revenues, from 24 percent in 1992 to 19 percent in 1999.

The “wall” separating editorial departments from contamination was erected well over a century ago when advertising replaced circulation as the mainstay of newspaper revenue. In 1977, a nationwide effort, the Newspaper Readership Project, sought to breach the editorial-business wall by making editors part of a problem-solving team effort to stop the decline of circulation. In newspapers across North America, readership or marketing committees were set up that brought editors together with circulation, promotion and advertising executives. They were encouraged to start with research that provided the information they needed to produce papers that were responsive to readers’ characteristics, interests and wishes.

Editors took to this process with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but today they generally understand that their own independence depends on the financial health of the enterprise and that newsroom staffs ought to be aware of this simple truth. They realize that people on the business side aren’t all dummies and that success comes easier when all departments communicate and work together. As part of this process, the business side may sometimes have to be reminded that what really sells advertising, in any medium, is the public’s respect for its integrity. To maintain that integrity often demands a look beyond the quarterly earnings report. And that takes courage.

Leo Bogart, a 1989-90 Media Studies Center fellow, is the former executive vice president and general manager of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. He is author of Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest.

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