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AdAge reports (reg. required) that energy company BP has joined Morgan Stanley in adopting an explicit policy of pulling ads from issues of magazines in which there's unfavorable coverage of the company.

On the one hand, there's certainly a non-nefarious (potential) rationale for this: If the value of an ad is going to be nullified by a piece slagging the company on the opposite page, that's just a bad use of one's advertising budget. Halliburton doesn't take out a lot of ads in The Nation, for good reason. On the other hand, there's obvious and very worrying potential for that sort of thing to influence coverage in an untoward way.

The two solutions, I think, are more information and less. Less, in that the wall of separation between ad and editorial departments needs to be more scrupulously maintained than ever. You can go over to MediaTransparency and find a (partial?) list of Reason Foundation donors. I purposely never look at that list, because I never want to find myself wondering, even for an instant, whether something I write might annoy a funder. More, in that publications should prominently and regularly disclose whether they're party ton such contingent advertising contracts so that readers can take what they read with the appropriate numbers of grains of salt. There needs to be a feedback-loop between professional ethics and an alert readership that will punish uncritically fawning coverage as much as advertisers will reward it, so that doing right and doing well are, if not in perfect harmony, at least not at loggerheads.

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  1. Readers of women’s magazines and those who used to subscribe to Ms Magazine long ago know all about that. Women’s magazines’ content is all written by the advertising department – this is so bad that Ms (back in the 80s, mind you, when they were experimenting with having a few, carefully selected advertisers)had one of said advertisers object to a cover story about a Russian woman (the Soviet Union was still around) because she was shown not wearing lipstick and this twerp sold cosmetics. According to what I remember, he got really pissy about it, too.

    Whatever you think of Ms and its agenda past or present, I’m fairly sure they reported their struggles accurately. They had to go the foundation-supported route and accept heavy losses until they could get such support.

  2. I’d prefer ad-free mags so I didn’t have to worry about this kind of influence at all. How much would my reason subscription be if it subsisted entirely on subscription revenue?

  3. From Media Transparency:
    Reason Foundation: Conservative libertarian think tank. Challenges strict environmental regulations

    Ah hah! So that’s the agenda that’s really driving Reason, everything else is just chaff & smoke screen. Deep in my heart I think I always knew.

  4. I just got a subscription to the CS Monitor, and was pleased to see that ads are minimal to non-existent. I don’t have to wonder how the paper’s advertising revenues are affecting its coverage.

    Meanwhile, in small-town journalism land, I ran into precisely that sort of problem this morning. An advertiser objected to my covering an event that affected the whole town. I managed to keep the story in, this time. I have to wonder how permeable the ad/edit wall is at the bigger papers as well.

  5. Damn that’s a lot of Scaife money.

    Julian, stay away from articles suggesting that Vince Foster committed suicide.

  6. In my experience stuff like this is really quite common, if not nearly so obvious.

    The tv station I used to work at is owned by a family that are big muck-a-mucks about town. Since many of their friends are also advertisers, it’s pretty unlikely that we would have run a news story that would be critical of any of them, or the military for that matter.

    To my way of speaking, this is pretty obviously an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine kind of deal.

    As a result, there are times when those local stations that are owned by large conglomerates like Gannet would break stories that the station I was at wouldn’t touch.

  7. er, meant to say “to my way of thinking” in the third paragraph. *rolls eyes*

  8. Let me take a stab at crafting a proper libertarian take. I’ve been observing the population in their native habitat for a while now, and I think I’ve begun to master their codes.

    Advertisers putting this kind of pressure on media outlets demonstrates the brilliance of the invisible hand of the free market. The fact that petroleum companies have the funds to become such major advertisors demonstrates the broad and deep support their positions command from the public. After all, if consumers were unhappy with the companies’ business practices, they would cease buying their products. People are perfectly free to stop buying gasoline, after all. Therefore, dissatisfaction with an editorial on the part of a large advertisor demonstrates dissatisfaction with that editorial position by the individual purchasers of that company’s products, and to the extent that newspapers conform their editorial lines to the wishes of their biggest advertisors, they are responding to the wishes of the public, and thus becoming better providers of that commodity knows as “media content.”

  9. Not bad, Joe, but you forgot to bash the government. I’m afraid I’ll have to deduct points for that omission.

  10. If the value of an ad is going to be nullified by a piece slagging the company on the opposite page, that’s just a bad use of one’s advertising budget.

    Wouldn’t this be the same if BP is running TV commercials during primetime news or on one of those 24 hour news channels and the news then does a segment on the number of worker deaths at BP Refineries? I wonder what the ad exec at the company does when a mishap occurs;
    “Oh shit, pull all the ads, we just had another death and this will be all over the news!”

  11. Money always tries to control citicism of itself. Probably very natural, usually pretty destructive to the society as a whole. One of the great ironies of life is that the powerful, left unchecked, almost always feel compelled to act in a way that will ultimately detroy them.

    And, since the powerful are almost always abusing their power in one or another, isn’t the whole trick of the media under capitalism (capital usually = money, so capitalism usually = moneyism) to find a profitable way of providing some information/service to the society as a whole, or at least an appreciable chunk of it, despite the fact that this information/service is likely to irritate the powerful as a whole, or at least an appreciable chunk of them?

  12. If you haven’t seen this yet:
    The Magazine Publishers of America’s flash site predicting mag covers and ads in the 22nd century:
    http://www.magazine.org/readon/

  13. I just can’t quite grasp why companies should subsidize people who are doing them harm with negative press by buying ads in their publications?

  14. rc jimmy d: they don’t have to, or anything like that. very few jackasses would suggest such a thing.

    however, announcing such a thing publically in this manner, is of the whole “newsweek killed people and should WATCH THEIR GODDAMN MOUTHS” style of public relations. major differences of course, but a similar end result is being wished fer.

  15. there’s really no problem to this.

    as for the death = no advertising thing: from what I’ve heard it’s true, and is of particular concern to airlines, as you don’t want to seem callous.

    non-general interest magazines see this all the time, where negative reviews of products tend to have negative impacts on ad sales. they do it anyway to maintain credibility (or at least some of them do). so people trust the harder core mags more than the fluffier ones, just as people in the know trust reason/NR/whatever those evil commies read, more than time or newsweek.

    given that magazines are an exceptionally competitive market, its not an issue. media bias and non-transparency is an issue for monopolistic situations (NYTimes, sometimes time/newsweek) rather than truly competitive markets.

  16. I’m with dhex.

    There’s nothing surprising or irrational about such advertising policies, and of course companies should be free to pursue them. But it looks bad to publicly announce them. It makes it look like the company has something to hide. Yes, yes, I know, even if you have nothing to hide there’s still no reason to subsidize a journalist who’s trying to make trouble for you.

    But, for God’s sake, there’s really no need to call attention to that journalist by announcing the policy. Just quietly stop buying ads and that’s that.

  17. Yes to all of you. This is why I take Reason and Liberty, The Nation and In These Times, Sojourners, and (buy at will on the news stands) the two big news weeklies. It’s not only to see what ad-free content looks like (though I do have to endure regular begathons from them all), it’s called “binocular vision.” The first five give me a viewpoint the mainstream media don’t – not to mention a view of who they’re in bed with by the mailings I get addressed to the name I subscribed under!

    Another plus is the times when the offbeat five agree with each other, usually about some incredibly stupid thing the Powers that Be are doing.

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