The Book Club

I Fear Only One Spinner

” ‘Life Ain’t a Montessori School’ … Java Pollution … Hard Cheese … Smell the Stench”

Dear Randall,

I take a different tack than my Slate colleagues when the standards and practices of my rapacious Microsoft overlords are discussed. Where I once automatically recused myself from the debate, saying with a lopsided grin, “Well, I really shouldn’t say anything for or against Microsoft because my MSFT stock and stock options constitute a conflict of interest, so nothing I say will carry much credibility,” I now say, “What do you think the business world is, a Montessori school?!”

So, if you’ve come to rumble about Microsoft and its corporate image issues, I’ll be happy to talk. I hope there will still be time on Friday to dance the mess around about public relations and the network effect, Java pollution, the art of writing contracts, the competitive price of the browser, and the question of whether Microsoft is gaining a monopoly by giving software away or gouging consumers by charging more for Windows 98 than it did for DOS 5.0.

So back to the topic at hand. I don’t need to remind a scholar and journalist such as you that the divisions between advertising and editorial are more secure today than they’ve ever been. In the early days of the American press, there was little division. “New Shipment of Hard Cheese at the General Store” could be read as either an ad or a news story in a newspaper, depending on your point of view, and it was just as likely that its creator was an advertiser as a “reporter.”

If we fast forward to these Pfizer-contaminated times, I think you’d agree that journalists are more ethical than they were in the days of The Front Page. They’re better educated. They best understand how influence is purchased and traded. And almost to a one, they’re more cynical about their relationships with sources. While Brill and company don’t suffer for material to write about, and I’ll be the first to gangster-slap the Pollyannas among us, I can’t get too worked up about Time magazine’s idiotic decision to create soothing advertorial–which I will ignore–at the behest of a pharmaceutical company.

If you really want to talk about editorial product compromised by advertisers, let’s examine the auto sections of daily newspapers or the car magazine genre in general. Then we could examine newspaper travel sections and the beauty magazines. Can the public smell this stench? Yes, and in the process discount the stench, just as they discount the stench contained in many advertisement and public relations pitches.

Backtracking the week a little, I read Stuart Ewen’s PR! A Social History of Spin at your suggestion. Ewen’s beef doesn’t reside with the fact that the masses are whipped, beaten, and driven by engineers of consent, but with the fact that the wrong folks are doing the whipping and their ultimate destination (profits) is wrong. He expresses little problem with the government propaganda of the New Deal under the Works Progress Administration because it serves “democracy,” not “demographics.”

From my libertarian vantage point, I’d rather endure the attempts of competing corporations to spin me for my dollars than I would a central government that wants my soul.

Back to you.