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:
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  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
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.
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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.