Every now and again, it’s perhaps worth revisiting the entire definition of journalism. In my view, it is writers and editors attempting to tell the truth about what’s happening in the world to readers every day or more frequently. A journalistic institution that lasts builds a trust between its editors and readers so that no one is in any doubt about the sincerity of the enterprise, its freedom from outside interference, or its integrity as a form of communication.
My concern with “sponsored content” in vast swathes of online media – from the New York Times to Time Inc. and Buzzfeed – is simply that, by deliberately blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial, it must necessarily undermine this integrity and cast a doubt over that trust. It violates the core integrity of any journalistic institution to treat the prose of commercial interests as the equivalent of the prose of editors and writers – or to blur the lines between the two, by presenting commercial speech in extremely similar formats to editorial speech.
Am I being too purist? All I can say is that my position was once held by every journalistic institution you can think of only a few years ago. Back then, advertising was a revenue model that was self-explanatory, clearly differentiated from any article, and if it could in any way be confused with an article would have the word “Advertisement” attached to it. It was also assumed that the editor would know no specifics of the advertiser. The reader of a magazine knew that what appeared in its pages was written entirely by journalists and guided by editors. That is not purism. It is the basic ethical code of journalism as we have known it for decades.
And so we come to the deeply depressing news that Josh Marshall’s TPM has joined the throng. In introducing the series – a completely new step for TPM – Josh didn’t address the obvious glaring issue. Instead he wrote a post that doesn’t sound like him, and in fact reads like a p.r. press release:
Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Idea Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives?
I.e. “The Data Sharing Effort To Cure Cancer.” Which was the first article in the new “vertical”. Which was written by a Phrma corporate flak.
On Friday, Josh responded to some brutally effective takedowns by Henry Farrell (it’s worth reading the entire debate, including the comments where Josh participated). His argument is that these are advertisements and are clearly labeled as such, but include text like an article because, well, er:
Our advertisers are policy focused and thus tend to have more complex arguments. They’re not just selling soap or peanut butter. There’s only so much of those arguments you can fit into a picture box or a video. They want room to make fuller arguments, lengthier descriptions of who they are and what they do, as you would if you were writing an editorial – in text, going into detail.
But they could do all that in a traditional advertisement: in their own font, attached to a real article, in their own color, with their own branding. We’d all know what it is. But this is not what Josh has offered them. He has offered them the appearance of being an article in TPM, and that offer is precisely and solely what makes sponsored content ads worth more than the others. If it were clearly an ad, that w0uld defeat the purpose of the enterprise, which is to blur that difference. So there is something inherently corrupting and unethical about this arrangement.
To quote E.B. White, stating the obvious, when discussing mere sponsorship of an article written by a journalist in Esquire in 1975:
Sponsorship is attractive to the sponsor himself, who, for one reason or another, feels an urge to penetrate the editorial columns after being so long pent up in the advertising pages. These temptations are real, and if the barriers were to be let down I believe corruption and abuse would soon follow.
That’s what all this is: an invitation to advertisers to penetrate the editorial columns. TPM and Josh, of course, are laggards in this. The betrayal of basic journalistic ethics by Time Inc. and the New York Times are far greater evils. I am focusing on TPM today because I’ve always thought of it as a sister site to the Dish, started just a short while afterwards, and imbued with the same spirit of independence. It’s not a desperate dinosaur grabbing one last stream of revenue in a panic. It’s a successful new media site that has actively decided to embrace this development with both hands. The news that they have done this has hit me like a sucker-punch to the gut.
TPM, after all, was an ethical model for online advertising and very successful at it. They accepted network ads blindly, wisely refusing to remove any for political reasons, because if they picked one ad over another, they’d be giving away their independence, and implicitly endorsing what were simply ads. But now, Josh absolutely picks advertisers over others, and thereby endorses Phrma, a controversial group whose activities might seem somewhat alien to Josh’s liberalism. In the past he could just say: heck, they’re an advertiser. An agency sends them our way and they pay the rent. Now, he has to own his endorsement of Phrma, and his integration of their propaganda into the core fabric of his magazine. As indeed he does:
This isn’t just something I’m comfortable doing or willing to do. I’m glad to do it. Because it allows me to continue funding what I believe is a great news organization, keeping it growing and expanding.
Compare that with E.B White:
The sponsorship principle seemed to challenge and threaten everything I believe in: that the press must not only be free, it must be fiercely independent — to survive and to serve.
Today, TPM is a little richer and a lot less independent. They chose the money over the principle. But there are some things money should never buy.