Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Coming In a Newspaper Near You

Nieman Watchdog, a blog sponsored by Harvard's prestigious Nieman Fellowship program, is famed among the paper-azzi we know for a section titled "Ask This" that poses questions the press should be asking. Questions such as "How Badly Has Bush Damaged the Federal Government?" (In case you were wondering, preliminary research suggests the answer is that aggressively recruiting incompetent boobs to staff the bureaucracy has long-lasting deleterious effects. What a shock.)

There's also a "Commentary" section where, last week, this news- about- the- news appeared: It seems the Memphis Commercial Appeal, an expression of the Scripps-Howard monopoly, recently has begun selling "sponsored ads" for individual news stories. Among these are plans for "sponsorship of an upcoming series of stories" about Memphis and world trade with China.

The new policy has sent a "shock wave" through the news room. Some fifty newsroom employees signed a protest petition "expressing their concerns about sponsored stories."

No doubt, they're worried because of the time-honored truth that he who pays the piper calls the tune. But the paper's editor, Chris Peck, dutifully wrote an editorial saying he rejects such a notion.
Peck said there was no expectation by Boyle or The CA that the sponsorship would influence content. “Advertisers clearly understand the value of having their paid messages associated with independently reported, relevant content,” Peck wrote.
You have to wonder whether Peck is stupid, a bullshitter, or a humbug artist. There aren't any better alternatives. No doubt, Memphis advertisers are guffawing at the notion that they value "independently reported" news over safe, unctuous cant.

What you can stop wondering about is whether buying the news and twisting it to the advertiser's purpose is a trend that will spread and infect other publications. It will. Indeed, it already has -- and our own Government is a leading purchaser.

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