Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This Post Brought To You By Velveeta (It's Cheesarific!)

When asked to name some things wrong with journalism, what would you list? Laziness? Political agendas? The phrase "We'll have to leave it there"? The phenomenon Fark's Drew Curtis recognizes as "Equal Time For Nutjobs"?

I go with advertiser influence.

By and large, the more a media outlet concerns itself with the acquisition and retention of specific advertisers, the more the quality of the actual journalism goes down. Once you concern yourself with that, you start compromising. 'Eh, I don't know, they might get angry with us, I should probably change this or leave it out or-- you know what, it'd probably be best if I kill the story entirely.'

The most obvious example these days has to be Glenn Beck. You might have heard about his having Goldline International as a sponsor, and lo and behold, there he is on his show extolling the virtues of investing in gold.

In the linked article, Beck's response is "So I shouldn't make money?" If money is your primary goal, Beck, you're in the wrong line of work. You're a journalist- supposedly- not a paid shill.

Don't get me wrong. You can HAVE sponsors. The key is to not give a damn about whether they stick around if you should decide to treat them just like everybody else. 60 Minutes had one of their finest hours when they broke the story that the Ford Pinto's gas tank could explode. Ford was a sponsor. They pulled their ads.

Then they recalled the Pinto.

60 Minutes struck again in 1974, this time against their own marketing department. On that occasion, they were spotlighting press junkets: journalists being sent to nice places with giant expense accounts, and then skewing their story in favor of whoever set it up.

These days, unfortunately, that report would never make it on the air today. Even if someone tried, it would get killed by an editor. Why? Because the news is seen these days as a moneymaking device by most of those who own the news organizations. Back in the Cronkite/Murrow/Reasoner days, the news wasn't supposed to make money. It was simply taken for granted that the news division would lose money hand over fist. That was okay as far as NBC, ABC and CBS were concerned; CBS especially. The news was supposed to be a loss leader: the prestige created by quality reporting raised the profile of the rest of the media empire.

Unfortunately, 60 Minutes taught media the wrong lessons; it told them to play up the slicker, more visually-appealing, more exciting style that 60 Minutes had as opposed to the purely straight-laced news broadcasts. The importance of quality reporting was slowly forgotten. 60 Minutes didn't exactly do much to dissuade from this lesson; they would go out and look for 'characters' to expose on occasion. From that last link:

"Thus the emphasis on the storytellers. Hewitt has always stressed personalities over issues. As he acknowledges, "casting" the people who appear in "60 Minutes" stories is an important element in the show's success. One recent "60 Minutes" segment, for example, featured an overweight, tall-talking Texan who illegally turned back odometers in used cars. "You couldn't find anybody better to play that guy," Hewitt said."

Shilling for ratings is not a recent thing. It goes back a long way to the days of Hearst and Pulitzer. Despite what the name of the prize will tell you, these were no responsible journalists. They engaged in a circulation war, and were not above making things up in order to win it, up to and including the rationale behind the Spanish-American War.

Nor is it an American thing. Turkish papers in Istanbul went to insane lengths to win a circulation war of their own back in the 90's. The papers got so caught up in promotional giveaways, which gave away, among other things, encyclopedias, cars, TV's, vacuum cleaners, dinnerware, bicycles, answering machines, toothbrushes, and chocolate pudding, that space in all papers involved was sopped up by articles denigrating the giveaways of the other papers. As the Boca Raton News stated,

"For weeks the "war of encyclopedias" has dwarfed the Somalia famine and conflict in Bosnia in their pages. The campaigns take half, sometimes all the front page."

The winner: nobody. Once the papers finally burned themselves out, they collectively found themselves right back where they started. They hadn't gained readers, merely shifted them around. Any new readers they had gained were simply there for the promotional items; once the promotions went away, so did they.

Why? It might have something to do with the fact that, in 1995, the literacy rate in Turkey was 70%. The papers themselves weren't very affordable either. Essentially, people weren't buying newspapers so much as sweepstakes tickets.

It can be a hard thing to not care about sponsors. They fund you; you could use that money to do a better job of reporting. But look at all the blogs out there. Some of them do a very effective, if often partisan, job on the whole. The only way they care about sponsors is making sure sponsors exist to help pay for the servers. They don't tend to be too particular about who those sponsors are, so long as they don't run ads that break the site or annoy the readers in the 'you are the millionth visitor' vein. They'll take pretty much anybody past that, to the point where if they anger one sponsor, okay, whatever, plenty more where that came from, and worst case scenario, you can just run Google AdSense. 538, run by self-described liberals, tends to prominently feature ads for Sarah Palin's PAC or 'No Obamacare In Wisconsin'. You don't go to the sponsors. The sponsors come to you. No one sponsor tends to pony up enough money for ad placement to be individually worried about.

Which just leaves the task of doing reporting respectable enough to where someone wants to attach their name to you.

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