Here are two widely disparate examples: A Newsweek item implying that American interrogators defiled the Koran set off riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ignoring the lessons of the Tylenol poison-pill episode when Johnson & Johnson took quick and decisive action, Newsweek issued regrets that it got part of the story wrong but was still defiant.
An advertorial in The New York Times carried the headline "An Upfront Like No Other," and below it read a cheery bit of text promising how "all three sectors in the industry-broadcast, cable and syndication-look surprisingly strong." How did the news side overlook that stunning development?
With the mainstream media fighting a rearguard action to hold onto readers and viewers, the old rules don't seem to work anymore. The lines between real news and spin are intersecting, and audiences are migrating to strange places, such as "The Daily Show" and blogs, for information. It's gotten so bad that the Times has come out with a set of guidelines to let readers know the biases of their unnamed news sources. And what happens when the bloggers sell out and are co-opted by advertisers and big media? (BusinessWeek has a blog.)
What worries me about the Newsweek item is that many people will overlook the fact that the magazine got it wrong and conclude that what they said could have been true. And the Newsweek reaction fed the feeling that there was a kernel of truth there somewhere.
Newsweek said that its source (not sources, as the original report stated) had been reliable in the past, but it's not going to help the credibility of the press that the magazine relied on a single informant to substantiate an incident that had such explosive implications. And it's initial reaction is a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis situation. "I did not want to be in the position of splitting hairs," Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, told the Times, sounding like Newsweek had committed some sort of technical violation.
Although it's certainly not a similar life-and-death situation, the Times advertorial on the upfront TV market raises the question of whether making a preposterous statement, even in the guise of non-editorial material, further erodes all credibility. When The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week saying that "all signs point to a soft upfront ad market for both broadcast and cable TV," how many readers of both papers will conclude that neither source knows what's going on?
Advertising Age reporter Jon Fine took an informal survey of media-savvy types that revealed no raised eyebrows about the advertorial, but, as Jon says, "a certain kind of fatigue also plays a role. Product placement and branded entertainment have significantly altered the complexion of virtually all entertainment forms."
He points out that government-made video news releases show up as news segments on local TV stations, with, I might add, the TV stations' full knowledge and cooperation. Further, "experts touting companies on TV shows have turned out to be getting money from the same companies without notifying the TV shows that have sought out their opinion," as lavishly detailed in a recent Journal story. The aim of a custom-publishing section is to persuade. But, Jon wonders, "how dangerous is it when the message defies credibility?"
It gets harder and harder to get the straight story. And meanwhile, views are hardened because people don't believe much of anything beyond their own positions. Why can't we be friends? Fuggedaboudit!