There's an expectation built on an assumption that once upon a time, not that long ago, there was a Golden Age of traditional print and TV journalism. In that era gone by, reporters were encouraged by a free and open editorial chief to write pertinent, hard hitting, objective stories that pay no special favors to topics, residents, and especially advertisers in their region or beat. But that over last few decades, editorial control has been ripped from the hands of editors and handed over more and more to a corporate dominated culture driven by a sales driven business model where advertisers and politicians are to be kept happy. Did such an era even exist? What really constitutes news?
Take the case of Pepsiggedon at the Scienceblogs site last week. From the moment Scienceblogs appeared four years ago they became the first stop of the day for me and thousands of others, and they remain a superb online resource on dozens of science and related subjects written by experts who care deeply about accurately communicating the beauty of science. They sure don't do it for the money! Most make less than minimum wage when you do the math. Between that dedication, they've been wildly successful giving science a badly needed voice when science and scientists are increasingly attacked by powerful institutions representing quackery, industry, and ideology.
So imagine their disappointment when parent company Seed Media quietly signed a deal with Pepsico where the snack-food giant would have their own blog out of dozens, ostensibly on food science and nutrition. But last week when that site showed up out of the blue, focusing on the science of food and nutrition, the reaction was swift. Some sciblings are now looking for new homes. In response management wisely removed the offending blog. But it brings up a broader discussion.
For one thing if SpaceX or Nanosolar were given a slot on Sb talking about next generation spacecraft or solar power, that might be interesting, for me anyway. OTOH had it been BP or Exxon, the outcry would have been far worse. For that matter product is placed in news media all the time. Sometimes obviously, like when anti-science think tanks get their "product" into an article -- or a WH hell bent on War with Iraq does the same -- other times less visibly, say when someone loses a tightly guarded hot new gadget right before product launch, and the "scoop review" is written up. In some cases it's even more blatant: a new car model or computer manufacturer in the business section of a major newspaper, or movie and book reviews on blogs and in newspapers. Here on Daily Kos we only present books we feel serve our readers' interests. But it's still marketing, otherwise publishers wouldn't contact us.
Some will no doubt say one clear line is when a writer does a piece that covers some aspect of an existing or prospective advertiser or industry sectors in an unflattering light, that writer better not get any pushback. And I agree, that would be over the line. But I'd bet most professional writers and veteran journalists have experienced it in some way way or another. And usually it's doesn't come down as obvious as "don't write bad things about ACME because the coyote is a huge advertiser here. More often an editor will tell the reporter to be sure and have their facts wired tight -- in fact a sympathetic editor that cares about the reporters career would be doing his or her job to demand exactly that. It would also be easy to hide behind that faux concern and crank the requirements up as high as needed to stop the story entirely.
These days when I read a paper I tend to think of it as the NYT, or the WaPo. Blogs -- real ones, not an online news paper column with a comment section full of drive-by idiots where the columnist never shows and engages -- seem much more personal, probably because the interactivity makes me realize I'm talking with a writer, not reading a newspaper. So in that case, if a traditional media venues gets caught up in the sponsored news noose, that could affect their entire brand. It's not fair, it's a double standard of sorts, but there it is.
Which brings me back to Sb: I sympathize with the science bloggers point of view. If they want Pepsi gone, I want it gone. The Pepsi blog wouldn't have done me any good and the sciblings do me a world of good. Those guys and gals have busted their ass to build a hell of a brand, brands I happen to like, just like a Snickers bar or Starbucks Mocofrap. And as long as Pepsi or anything else doesn't affect those brands, I'll keep reading them.
What do you think?
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