When I was a boy, I took one of my first newspaper jobs in the back of the press room, standing next to a rotary letterpress of the general size and aspect of a steam locomotive, where I “stuffed papers.” That is, I assembled one section of the paper inside another. Heavy, inky work for a whole crew of us junior high schoolers and part-timing moms. And we all got a stern warning the first day.
“You can’t call any want ads before the paper comes out to the general public. You do it, we catch you, you’re fired,” Wayne, our thick-bearded supervisor, told us.
Wayne scared us kids to death, of course. And it astonished me when two grown-ups in the next few years got fired for jumping the gun on classifieds. They were not part of our grimy crew, no. One was a typesetter; he actually read the ads upside-down and backwards on his stick. Another was one of my Dad’s ad salesmen.
Years later, when I lived in New York, many young people I knew put in stints at the Village Voice‘s ad department. More than one got fired for taking the jump on an ad for an apartment. Weighed against the scarcity of New York apartments, a part-time job didn’t mean anything. Note that the policy was still in place, though — as it was in the 1980s when I took classifieds over the phone at Los Angeles’s Recycler classified advertising magazine.
I ruminate on this policy — maintaining public trust in publications — because of the recent flap over radio talk show Armstrong Williams taking a $240,000 payment from the Bush administration’s Education department to do nice things on-air (apparently) on behalf of the No Child Left Behind act. It was stupid, stupid of the education department (just about what you’d expect of government officials trying to be clever), and stupid for Armstrong Williams, who had a unique reputation and position to protect.
In his newspaper days, H.L. Mencken handled the inevitable flood of press releases by putting them in a column headed, “What the Press Agents Say.” These days, the boundaries have blurred considerably.
Read Myrna Blyth’s entertaining and scathing Spin Sisters : How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and you find out that women’s magazines and high-profile TV shows (Katie, Baba, etc.) have been doing this kind of thing for decades. In order to land a celebrity for the cover or the show, such a magazine or broadcast will give over its entire content control to an army of press agents and PR flacks. I have worked in magazine advertising. I assure you that, to some degree, almost every magazine works out similar deals with advertisers. The ad salesmen I used to work with even had a made-up word to describe a mutual back-scratch. “I can get you some advertorial,” a salesman would assure an advertiser. Meaning, I’ll schmooze the editors to get them to say something nice about you.
In the trade magazine world, forget it. The people you cover actually contribute part of your editorial content, sometimes all if it. That’s just the way it is.
At the same time, for at least the last three decades, a shift in visual style has transformed magazines and TV. I pitched a story to one start-up pub in the 1980s whose braintrusters actually bragged that “You won’t be able to tell our ad pages from our editorial pages.” Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Vogue? Like that.
And, at a glance, can you tell the difference between commercial and program content on some TV networks and shows? MTV? VH-1? ESPN, sometimes?
So, okay, at some level, some radio, TV, newspaper, and magazine publishing and programming is supposed to be Above All That.
Right. ABC hires George Stephanopoulos. CNN hires James Carville and Paul Begala. They actually host shows. You can safely say that the ABC and CNN think they’ve bought something significant. Or that ABC and CNN have been bought.
Not much difference either way. TV stations love infomercials, after all, because they don’t have any production costs associated with them. They’re pure profit. It becomes clearer and clearer that more and more of the media has adopted the large hunks of the infomercial format. Most times, for example, Charles Osgood’s daily radio broadcast simply recasts a press release, adding a line or two of live interview.
Armstrong Williams played the game clumsily, and he had two strikes against him from the beginning, as a black conservative. So now the media world can go through a big moral snort about its integrity. As soon as possible, things will settle right back down to normal, reflecting the ethics of your average county commissioner, writ large.
Down at the bottom, the peons will still get fired for calling classified ads before pub date. Unless even that standard has fallen to Ebay.