Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!"

The date was June 12, 1987. The place: the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. The speaker, U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

And the line we all remember from that, one of the most famous of "the great communicator's" speeches, is: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Indeed, it is often referred to as the "Tear Down This Wall" speech.

The line came to me this morning (August 8) while reading The Gazette.

Because there's another wall that's been under attack for years and is being torn down one piece at a time -- and The Gazette succeeded in loosening, and removing, one more brick this morning.

The wall is what once was an "Iron Curtain" in its own right, the wall between the editorial and advertising, or business, sides of a journalistic enterprise, whether print or electronic.

Indeed, though it appears quaint by today's standards, the principle is still embodied in the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. It provides, among other things, that

"A journalist should . . . Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

It is, admitedly, a tough standard in the context of corporate, advertiser-supported media. The most natural thing in the world for a media's CEO with little training in journalism, and a constant focus on the bottom line, would be to try to please advertisers; for an advertiser to insist that it not support financially a media outlet that runs stories attacking that very advertiser; and for a station's salesperson to want to discourage the news department from becoming such an outlet -- advocating that investigative stories be killed if necessary to avoid losing accounts.

One of the most candid -- and far reaching -- expressions of the advertiser's perspective is contained in a memorandum from Procter & Gamble on its broadcast policies, reported by broadcasting's preeminent historian Erik Barnouw: "There will be no material that may give offense, either directly or by inference, to any commercial organization of any sort" (emphasis supplied). Erik Barnouw, The Sponsor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 112. [Barnouw notes, "The Proctor & Gamble policy statement is quoted in Green, Timothy, The Universal Eye: The World of Television (New York: Stein & Day, 1972), pp. 28-29." Ibid, p. 197, n. 12.]

As the media have come to be viewed by the financial community as "just another business" -- like pharmaceuticals or autos -- the pressure for ever-increasing profits has resulted in layoffs of journalists, and efforts to enlist the self-interest of editors by compensating them in part like corporate executives, with bonuses and other pay based on corporate profits.

Fortunately for eastern Iowans, The Gazette is one of America's few remaining media outlets that is still locally owned, and therefore able to apply, when it wishes, the journalistic standards of days gone by. But even The Gazette lives in an ever-increasingly commercialized world, as this morning's paper revealed.

At the bottom of page one -- page one! -- along side a promotional tease for a story headlined "Ultrasounds Can Affect Young Brain Development" (admittedly a story worthy of bringing to readers' attention) was another promo. This one was for a story headlined "Will New Vanilla Frosty Challenge Chocolate?" -- with a prominent photo of one of those fast food drink containers clearly identified as from "Wendy's."

(Normally, page one of America's newspapers has been free of ads, and reserved for the most important news of the day. Ads only appeared inside the paper. Increasingly this is changing, even by prestigeous papers, up to and including the removable advertising stickers on page one with which our morning papers now arrive.)

But it is the story itself which is most disturbing. Dubbed a "Food Review," this Associated Press story bylined by Casey Laughman is headlined, "Vanilla, you saucy tramp; New Frosty steals chocolate's thunder." The two columns of text bookends an even larger container with the Wendy's name, logo, and "Old Fashioned Hamburgers" clearly legible. Casey Laughman, "Vanilla, You Saucy Tramp; New Frosty Steals Chocolate's Thunder," The Gazette (Associated Press), August 8, 2006 (Accent Section, p. 5D).

As if the placement of this advertisement as a news story, let alone its promotion, wasn't bad enough, puffing a product that is already full of air -- and goodness knows what else -- the writing is really over the top. The Associated Press thinks it's important we know that Wendy's vanilla Frosties are more than "awesome," they're "uberawesome." The first taste made the journalist feel like "a chorus should be singing," from this "explosion of flavor," this "boldness . . . almost a swagger," as a result of which they are "Hooked. Bad."

But this isn't the worst of it. For some reason the author of this ad felt a need to come up with an analogy of sorts for the distinction between chocolate and vanilla. Like the ad agency that promoted "Virginia Slims" with the line, "Cigarettes are like women, the best ones are thin and rich," the analogy chosen was with women. "Vanilla would be the one to bring home to mama -- safe, sweet. Works in a library. . . . Chocolate, on the other hand, is the girl in the back of the bar . . .. You know, the one with the pierced eyebrow and the tattoo on her lower back."

"Mr. Editor, tear down that wall."

"Wall? What wall?"

1 comment:

Michael said...

I don't think it's news (definitely not investigative journalism), but it certainly is comedy.

The danger lies in the fact that comedy was probably not the intention.