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.
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."
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
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
"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.
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
"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.
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."