Politics

Esquire's Pay-for-Play Journalism in China

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Chinese Esquire, speaking truth to power

Hey look! Esquire yesterday was nominated for three presitigious National Magazine Awards! Congratulations, Esquire! (Reason, alas, got shut out.)

In other Esquire news, the Chinese edition of the magazine peddles its news pages to the highest bidder without disclosing anything to readers. Here's today's New York Times:

Want a profile of your chief executive to appear in the Chinese version of Esquire? That will be about $20,000 a page, according to the advertising department of the magazine, which has a licensing agreement with the Hearst Corporation in the United States. […]

Executives at the Chinese language version of Esquire magazine say they regularly publish soft news features that are essentially ads masquerading as news.

One example was a feature about a European audio company, Bang & Olufsen, that supplies equipment to Audi, the automaker. Nothing in the magazine indicated that the Chinese Esquire had been paid to run it.

But the magazine received at least $10,000 a page for the five-page feature, according to the publication's executives, who e-mailed images of it as an example of the paid genre. They, and others who helped produce the article, said Audi was involved in the payment. A spokesman in China for Audi declined to comment. Cheryl Sim, a Bang & Olufsen spokeswoman in the company's Singapore office, said it was not the company's practice to pay for news coverage. "We certainly did not pay in this Esquire case," she said. "But we'll look into the matter." The Hearst Corporation declined to comment.

I wrote and edited (respectively) articles very similar to the New York Times piece in 1992 Czechoslovakia and 1996 Hungary. Journalism outlets there, including respected publications owned by venerable Western media companies, were engaging in undisclosed pay-to-play, often with the participation and even encouragement of notable Western advertising and P.R. firms. As a purely moral and journalistic matter, I hope the people who know better–particularly the Hearst Corporation–catch heat for this. The ultimate competitive advantage in journalism is not pocketing today's bribe money, but spreading and selling tomorrow's culture in which integrity is rewarded and corruption scorned.