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The Real New Journalism

Lincoln LS, Official Car of Hachette Hacks


Posted Saturday, August 21, 1999

        I left a job at Newsweek in 1988, and didn't return to slick, mainstream magazine journalism until a 6-month stint at the same publication last year. What was the most obvious thing that had changed? It's much more corrupt now. Not Newsweek, especially, but the whole world of profit-making magazines. Even at relatively high-class publications, writers now routinely assume that the content is influenced by advertisers, even individual advertisers. Time crossed a line last year with its special project, "Heroes for the Planet" -- a relentless series of inspirational, stupefyingly dull eco-profiles that Time editor Walter Isaacson would never have inflicted on his readers had they not constituted a package Ford Motor Company was eager to exclusively sponsor (and run "green" image ads in). Would Time ever run an article on, say, a "hero" who had fought the car manufacturers over automotive pollution? "We don't run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes," explained a Time editor to the Wall Street Journal. Oh. (Isaacson later performed some skillful damage control here, and here.)

        Many writers still fight the advertising pressure, of course, but they don't seem to quit over it, or raise a public fuss. It's accepted as a reality that must be dealt with and worked around. Editors who do quit, or who stand up to owners and publishers in public, were once hailed as heroes and hired by competitors. Today they just make themselves unemployable by the handful of rich egomaniacs who seem to have a lock on the glossy business, and who don't need anyone who is going to give them trouble.

        Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "this is going to turn into another incredibly long piece about welfare reform." No! It's about corruption in magazines. Really.

        That is because a few days ago I received in the mail my personal copy of the "Road & Track Guide to the All-New Lincoln LS." It's a beautifully-produced 40 page document that looks to all the world like a brochure for Lincoln's fancy new BMW-esque sports sedan, but it is billed as one of a "Road & Track Special Series," and it carries the logo and masthead of that magazine. An opening spread with a note from "the office of the publisher," one Brian J. McMahon, immediately establishes the guide's critical distance:

For those who dream of things related to the driving experience with a special automobile, Lincoln is embarking on a new course. ... Lincoln has created an automobile that redefines the luxury-sport segment. ... The international heritage of the new LS sedans has great appeal. Our enthusiasm for the world's finest motor cars and the heritage associated with the best provided a wonderful opportunity ...
I called McMahon, the putative author of this pap, who informed me that the guide was produced and controlled "totally" by the editorial staff of R&T. Lincoln's input was limited to suggesting subjects to write about. (There are sections on "The Design Story," and "World-Class Engineering," for example.) Who pays for it? "We pay for it; Lincoln pays for it." How much does Lincoln pay? "That's proprietary business information."

        Both the brochure ... sorry, the "guide," and the regular September issue of R&T contain an almost entirely positive road test of the new LS, praising its "superior handling, competitive acceleration, stylish design, and luxurious interior appointments." But readers of the "guide" did not get exactly the same road test that ran in the magazine. (Writer Matt DeLorenzo wrote one road test and then sent it to two different editors.) A sentence mentioning that the LS's dashboard betrays "a touch of corporate cost control" mysteriously disappears in the Lincoln-subsidized version, as does a comparison chart conceding that "the BMW [540] does ultimately deliver superior handling feel." Blatant self-censorship? That's my guess, though the "guide" also contains a paragraph, cut from the magazine, that takes a mild swipe at the "New Edge" styling of other Ford products.

        It's true, the car magazines have always been suspect, integrity-wise. They rarely savage a major corporate offering in its debut road test, and what muted objections there are typically get buried in the middle paragraphs. But DeLorenzo's review seems even more deferential than usual. The mildest criticisms of the car's schlocky styling, for example, are immediately swaddled in bouquets of blurbish praise:

Some may feel the LS designers were overly conservative, but others would argue the car has the clean and simple lines that bespeak timeless or classic good looks. There is a muscular edge character lines that give it a distinctive freshness.
It's hard to believe DeLorenzo, when writing this review, wasn't influenced (if only instinctively or subconsciously) by the knowledge that Lincoln had paid his employer good money to use it as a promotional tool. (The print run was over a million copies, I was told. They're mailed out, bundled with car magazines, and Lincoln hands them out at auto shows.)

        McMahon says R & T has done this sort of thing a lot recently, and unfortunately he's probably right. Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, R&T's owner, seems to have pioneered an ingenious new form of corruption. Time's sin, after all, was trading editorial copy for ad pages, and even the notoriously sleazy women's magazines are typically accused of praising beauty products in exchange for ad purchases. Hachette has gone them one better -- it just takes cash directly from Lincoln, and doesn't even have to bother to provide the fig leaf of ads. Indeed, the "guide" appears pristine; it contains no ads of any sort, for Lincoln or anyone else. That makes the deception worse, in a sense, since the reader has lost one obvious indication the document isn't R&T's true, unencumbered opinion. (I don't even know who mailed me mine, Lincoln or Hachette -- there was no return address.) As an added bonus for Lincoln, the suspect road test in the subsidized "guide" then gets reprinted in the regular magazine, without any indication to the regular R&T reader that a pile of money (of unknown, "proprietary" size) has changed hands.

        Hachette's "guide" also pretty clearly shreds the professional guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors, which state that "No editorial staff members should work on custom publishing projects prepared by the publisher for one or more advertisers." But that's no big deal. Despite ASME's brave ethical front, even respectable magazines seem to have bought into the idea that if they don't sell out at least a little bit, their publications won't survive. In this new era, attempts like ASME's to impose the old, admirable ethic of "editorial independence" seem doomed. The interesting question is what sort of new, second-best ethic might replace it. That will be discussed in a future posting.

        Also coming soon --'s first Special Issue: A Salute to Si Newhouse! Reserve Your Commemorative Ad Space Now!

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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