9. How Advertising Pressure Can Corrupt a Free Press

Source: Center for the Study of Commercialism, 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Ste. 300 Washington, DC 20009-5728, Date: March 1992, Title: "Dictating Content: How Advertising Pressure Can Corrupt a Free Press," Author: Ronald K.L. Collins (Foreword by Todd Gitlin)

SYNOPSIS: The free press in America isn't free at all -- at least from the influence of advertisers on the content of the news. While people fear governmental control of the media, a far more subtle yet pervasive influence comes from advertiser pressure. "Dictating Content: How Advertising Pressure Can Corrupt a Free Press," a report by the Center for the Study of Commercialism, documents dozens of examples of advertiser censorship in the media.

One of the crudest forms of censorship is defined as "direct economic censorship," which occurs when an advertiser overtly dictates to the mass media what the public shall or shall not hear. Examples include the impact on consumer reporting on the automotive industry, which throws around its weight with huge advertising budgets. "We don't even bother with auto-related stories anymore," says Seattle reporter Herb Weisbaum. "Even a simple consumer education story on how to buy a new car can draw the wrath of local car dealers." He adds, "Stories are being killed ... watered down; and saddest of all, stories are not even being attempted because reporters know they'll never make it on the air."

Similarly, the major ad revenues spent on the local level by realtors and retail stores influence coverage of their industries. The extraordinary influence of tobacco advertisers on the coverage of smoking and its connection with cancer is also documented.

Other forms of media bias include reporter self-censorship (when the specter of an advertiser's reaction dissuades a reporter from even suggesting a particular story); reporting fake news (advertiser created reports or news segments presented as legitimate, unbiased news accounts); using stories as bait (stories that purposefully flatter current or potential advertisers); using puff pieces to increase ad revenues.

Achieving editorial independence is difficult, given the pressure for advertising income. And those who try to maintain journalistic integrity often face a real threat to their livelihood. According to the journalists responsible for the "Dictating Content" report, "When interviewed for this report, reporters caught in the crossfire between advertisers and editors requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or being blacklisted." One editor confirmed he was fired after clashing with his publisher over advertiser influence; the publisher added that he would jeopardize his future in the industry if he talked for the record. One long-time reporter was fired for apparently embarrassing his publisher when quoted about his paper's "sensitivity to car advertisers."

The Center for the Study of Commercialism invited 200 media outlets to a press conference in Washington, DC, on March 11, 1992, to announce the results of its study. Not a single radio or television station or network sent a reporter, and only two newspapers, the Washington Post and the Washington Times, bothered to attend. The Post didn't run a story at all; the Times ran one but didn't name the advertisers cited in the study. The press conference, designed to show how advertisers suppress the news, made its point.

SSU Censored Researcher Amy Cohen

COMMENTS: Many media critics have accused the press of being vulnerable to advertiser pressure in the past. Until now, however, there hasn't been broad evidence of how that dynamic works. Thanks to the Center for the Study of Commercialism, in Washington, DC, such evidence is available, albeit still ignored by the press itself. Author Ronald K.L. Collins describes the study and how it was received by the news media:

"To the best of our knowledge, 'Dictating Content' was the First report of its kind addressing the topic of how advertising pressure may affect editorial content in the print and electronic media. The report cited more than 60 specific instances of print and/or electronic media, advertising-related censorship, including over two dozen never before revealed. ('A remarkable achievement, considering how terrorized are most newsrooms when the question is broached,' wrote Doug Ireland of the Village Voice, 3/24/92.)

"For the first time, the report told Americans -- particularly consumers -- how the content of the media information may be influenced by direct or indirect advertising pressure. Such information may have a significant impact on some of the most important decisions Americans make, from the homes and the cars they buy to the pharmaceutical drugs they may need. Moreover, public knowledge of advertising pressure connected to alcohol and tobacco is vital to the public health and safety.

"Some media (the Washington Post, for one) did not cover the story of our report because, according to one reporter, the problem was purportedly 'well known' within the journalism community (i.e., in the newsrooms, in the scholarly journals, etc.). Even if true, such arguments overlook an important fact: the public has been kept in the dark about this form of private censorship affecting freedom of the press.

"In short, information of the kind set out in 'Dictating Content' is a crucial part of the public's Right To Know, without which the high goals of the First Amendment are unattainable.

"Over 200 print and electronic media news organizations received press releases and press conference invitations concerning our report, 'Dictating Content.' While the report received limited to fair coverage in newspapers, it received absolutely no coverage by network TV and no coverage in any major magazine. The only TV coverage was a short March 12, 1992, Fox Morning TV News (Washington, DC) report. All major networks and magazines were sent advance press releases and/or copies of the report. Still, no network TV or major magazine reporters were assigned to cover the story-and none did.

"The total network TV and major magazine blackout surrounding the release of 'Dictating Content' was perhaps predictable given that our report surmised that the problem of advertising pressure is probably most acute in the network and magazine media.

"Unless the sunlight of the media is shed brightly on the topic of advertising pressure affecting the press, then the problem is likely to continue and will probably grow worse. Too many editors and producers will remain timid in the face of ad pressure; too many reporters will remain reticent about doing stories that may be killed or may result in their firing; and all too often the public will be denied information vital to informed decision-making in the marketplace. Meanwhile, a vicious cycle of censorship will continue, trading the short-term gains of commerce for the long-term gains of uninhibited communication.

"The Center for the Study of Commercialism is continuing its efforts in this field. Currently we have embarked on a study of the major college textbooks used in journalism and communication departments to determine to what extent, if any, the topic of advertising pressure and editorial integrity are addressed. Similarly, the Center is attempting to organize groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors to take some long needed action in this area byway of establishing some code of voluntary guidelines.

"Still, the problem continues. For example, in a recent study conducted by the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, 75 percent of those editors and reporters polled said they were aware of increasing pressure by advertisers to influence the content of business sections. Almost half responded that advertising pressure has affected the way their publications edited or reported the news. Worst of all, such important information about this form of censorship goes largely unreported, especially on network TV and in major magazines.

"In a highly commercial culture such as ours, the First American metaphor of a marketplace of ideas can only be realized where there is some critical distance between the forces of the marketplace and the freedom of press, especially ideas critical of the marketplace. Unfortunately, quiet though powerful censorial forces have prevented that message from making its mark."