Church and State at Time

With the Supreme Court now saying it’s OK for states to allow school vouchers to be used at religious institutions, Chatterbox thinks it’s a propitious moment to check in on how Time magazine’s historic division between “church” (news) and “state” (advertising), as founder Henry Luce dubbed it, is faring. Today’s New York Times mentions, in passing, that Time has an “agreement with the Ford Motor Company, in which Ford will be the sole sponsor of new editorial sections that focus on the environment.” Chatterbox thought: Huh? Isn’t that a conflict between church and state?

Chatterbox wants to be clear: He is not a prude about corporations choosing to sponsor particular features in magazines. E.B. White raised a famous ruckus about this practice shortly before he died. Chatterbox thinks White, who had grown up in the pampered environment of The New Yorker during its golden age, was being unrealistic. It would be better if magazines were financially strong enough to say no to advertiser sponsorship of specific content, but they aren’t, and Chatterbox has made his peace with that. However, it does seem incumbent upon magazines to avoid letting corporations sponsor features in their magazines whose content poses a conflict of interest with the sponsorship.

I called Time’s managing editor, Walter Isaacson, to ask him about the Ford sponsorship of the environment pieces. He said the arrangement “doesn’t bother me in the least” because the Ford people have never asked to see the content of the stories, and aren’t being allowed to dictate subject matter, etc., etc. OK, Chatterbox, asked, what has the subject matter been so far? The first installment, Isaacson said, was a batch of pieces on the oceans. The second installment will be about endangered forests. The oceans and endangered forests, it so happens, are two environmental subjects that the auto companies don’t care much about one way or the other (except insofar as their employees may be members of the Sierra Club). What about a piece on the evils of the internal combustion machine? Would Time use Ford’s money to do something like that? “It wouldn’t be a problem,” Isaacson says.

All right, tough guy: Chatterbox hereby challenges Time to schedule one of the pieces in the Ford-sponsored series on persistent health risks associated with ground-level ozone (e.g., smog), or on the case for higher fuel efficiency standards, or on some other subject that drives Ford Motor Co. batty. Chatterbox knows Time has the guts to do it; in a lengthy recent story on corporate welfare, it ran a sidebar outlining Time-Warner’s own feeding at the public trough. But Chatterbox also suspects Time may neglect to do it if Chatterbox doesn’t threaten to call them sissies. Watch this space.

Timothy Noah