As some of you know, my day job is working at a public library. This morning, as I was checking in the daily newspapers, I was surprised that the LA Times’ huge front page story–something about an attack on a local TV network– hadn’t gotten any mention on the front page of any of the other papers. Until I looked more closely.
The entire front page of the paper was an advertisement. Actually, the entire front and back pages, inside and out, were an ad for yet another spin-off of the popular “Law & Order” TV series. So if you had that day’s paper delivered to you, or saw it in a newspaper box on the street, you’d see the top half of the front page, and think that there had been some sort of major incident outside a TV studio. Granted, the word “advertisement” appears in small letters above the masthead (a place nobody looks), and the bottom half of the front page (below the fold) is a very clear ad for the TV show. BUT STILL, the LA Times, one of the so-called “papers of record” in the United States, put fake headline news on the front page of their paper because someone paid them to. The NY Times had an almost identical advertising section, but they placed it inside the paper, under the name of a fake paper, the “LA Post”.
Now, this isn’t a new trend. Again, working at the library, I’ve seen more than a dozen issues of magazines with covers that use the logo and format of the magazine’s regular cover to promote some product. But most of these have been sports or fitness magazines, not news magazines. In addition, many newspapers have had partial ads on the front pages in a variety of formats (thin vertical strips that cover up the far-left side of the paper, stickers with ads attached to the front page, etc.). The LA Times has also done a few similar stunts in recent times. Last year, they covered up the entire front and back of the paper with an ad for the TV series “Tru Blood”. In March, they put a fake front page with the picture of the Mad Hatter to promote the new “Alice in Wonderland” movie. That was a little embarrassing, but at least no one would mistake that for the news. In July, they used a fake front page wrapper with fake articles about Universal Studios being destroyed, in order to promote that theme park. While designed to look like an interior section of the paper instead of the front page, it appears that it did cover up the paper’s front. That stunt resulted in the LA County Board of Supervisors writing a letter asking the Times to cut that out.
“So what’s the big deal?” you may ask. “You’ve been writing about how major news outlets promote bullshit, lies, and propaganda as news for years!” And you’d have a point, you cynical bastard.
I guess it’s just a gut reaction, thinking about what we’d all like journalism to be. As kids, most of us were taught that the news is The News, true facts about what’s happening in our world. While skepticism about news is a good thing, it is shocking how journalists (for the most part) do a worse and worse job, while insisting that they are as good as they’ve ever been, that they espouse no particular viewpoint, that their ethics remain unchanged. But this right here was literally “put some fake news on the front page of your newspaper and we’ll give you money”. It could have been worse, of course. “New Study: Everyone Enjoys the Great Tastes of Sprite” or “New Will Ferrell Movie Cures Cancer”. Or even outside of the advertising spectrum: if they took money from NBC to say that a fictional thing happened, why wouldn’t they take money from the RNC to say something never happened? “John McCain Vows to Give Every American $1000″ or “Obama Health Care Plan to Kill All American Kittens”. Or that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
It feels that much worse because we all know that good journalism is still possible. We see it all the time in various forms of media. The Times itself recently did a wonderful job exposing the massive corruption in the outlying city of Bell, where city officials had scammed the citizenry of millions in excessive salaries, perks, and embezzlement. Without the Times’ reporting, this might never have been exposed, and the city government would still be bilking the residents.
But I guess what bothers me most is the disingenuousness of the LA Times here. Defending the paper against criticism for the Universal stunt, the paper’s publisher wrote:
The Universal Studios Hollywood ad wrapping Thursday’s LATExtra section met our advertising guidelines, including a large, red ‘advertisement’ notification on top of the page. Our readers understand the ad-supported economic model of our business, which allows us to provide the outstanding journalism they rely upon 24/7.
Tons and tons of people, if not most, read headlines and that’s it. Even if they do read the articles, they often only read the very beginning and then stop. Journalists know this, and are trained to put the most important info first, because people might never make it to the end. So acting like your readers are savvy consumers who are going to look for indicators that what looks like a news story in what looks like a trusted newspaper is actually an ad that looks just like a news story in a trusted newspaper, is utter crap. People are often paying only half attention, and sadly, many of them aren’t that bright to begin with. These ads are selling the trust of readers to advertisers in exchange for cash.
I don’t have a good conclusion here, but this is part of what I’ve always been all about: anti-deceit, and pro-telling-people-to-watch-out-for-deceit.