“It’s Not An Ad, It’s Thought-Leadership”

Shafer tackles sponsored content:

When Web publishers deliberately blur the visual and textual divide that separates editorial from advertising, as The Atlantic did, they force readers to judge whether a page is news/opinion or a commercial advertisement. But they’re not confused; it’s the publisher and the advertiser who are confused. The publishers and advertisers have polluted their own tradition by erasing the traditional line. Suddenly, it’s completely reasonable for readers to blame controversial news stories directly on advertisers and blame controversial advertisements directly on reporters and editors, because publishers and advertisers have essentially merged operations. Such calamities injure both publisher and advertiser, even already controversial advertisers like Scientology …

I’m not an absolutist. I’ve never feared advertising that advertises itself as advertising. I’m prepared to accept that an advertiser could produce content worthy of my time, though I’ve yet to witness that miracle. I don’t even fear “thought leadership,” as long as the wallet financing the composition and promulgation of the thoughts can be identified, as was the case when Herb Schmertz, Mobil Oil’s vice-president for public affairs, routinely published his company’s “low-key advocacy ads” on the New York Times op-ed page beginning in the early 1970s. Just make sure I can see the line.

As a great wag once said, a newspaper is nothing but an advertisement with a news story printed on the back. That arrangement has worked well for American publishers, readers and advertisers for two centuries. But can it work if you have to guess which side contains the ad?

Three cheers for Shafer writing that stuff for Reuters. It’s amazing how little public debate this media-corporate whoring has generated … in the press. Writers at the Atlantic have been formally warned not to talk to anyone from the press. And you can see why: the “sponsor-content” press doesn’t want to expose its sordid desperation. Which itself lends credibility to the idea that the Fourth Estate – if it cannot easily be distinguished from corporate and government power – is fast disappearing.

This is not about media narcissism. It’s about a critical independent pillar of our democracy, a truly independent press, a pillar that is being demolished even by magazines with as distinguished a past as the Atlantic.

The Dish’s sponsored content thread can be read in full here.