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Matt Welch Posted April 06, 2000
The Debauchery of Human Interaction (Part 3)
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Matt Welch:
08/01       Media Criticism Gone Horribly Wrong
07/01       The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco
06/01 From Oasis to Mirage
05/01       The Web's Most Curious Man
03/01       Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety


Privacy violations and hidden marketing may reveal a basic hostility toward subscribers and other humans, but what does it mean for editorial content? Besides creating and reinforcing noxious corporate values -- disregard for the audience, disregard for honesty -- the more tangible effects will be that editorial choices will be increasingly based on commercial potential, and coverage will be more blatantly and subtly co-opted to promote corporate entertainment/business products.

'It's only a matter of time before senior citizens who have received Time for 50 years will be bombarded by spam from every pyramid scheme and info-fraud who can operate Eudora Light.'

Ken Layne has already described in these pages how AOL content chief Jonathan Sacks aggressively -- and offensively -- defended his company's buy-button-driven editorial philosophy at an OJR-sponsored conference last month. (Sample quote: "In the interactive space, we journalistically have to act quite differently from traditional magazines and traditional newspapers. We are likely to integrate commerce opportunities with information.")

This outrage -- forcing every chunk of a news operation to have X level of profitability -- is merely a turbo-charged acceleration of the "unbundling" that is already taking place in Old Media (whereby money-losing public service journalism is no longer subsidized by fat classifieds sections), but Sacks' undeserved arrogance suggests a new audacity: he doesn't even pretend that journalism has a higher purpose than to enable consumer transactions.

That reckless swagger -- based largely, I believe, on 15 years of journalists shrugging and mumbling sad little nonsense about "the real world" -- is now also being witnessed in the area of "synergy." During a Feb. 7 teleconference with shareholders, AOL CEO Bob Pittman blurted out this gem of an unintended warning: "Our highly successful collaborations with Time Warner for 'Austin Powers' and 'You've Got Mail' just scratch the surface of what we can achieve in cross-promotion."

'You've Got Mail', the cuddly Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romantic comedy, is probably the biggest individual case of product placement in the history of cinema (for those lucky enough not to understand why, "you've got mail" is what AOL tells you when a new e-mail message arrives in your computer). And typical of such deals (and of Big Media's routine insulting of our intelligence), AOL totally denied it at the time. "We really don't think of it as a promotion," AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg told the Washington Post back then. "It's a love story, not a technology story."

Time Warner's 'Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me', meanwhile, is being taught in marketing classrooms across Hollywood as the most effective cross-promotion of a film, ever. Besides a clutch of product placement deals (including with targets of Mike Myers' "satire," such as Starbucks), special Austin Powers promotions were conducted by corporate siblings TNT, TBS and Entertainment Weekly, and Time even kicked in with a George W. Bush article the week of the film's release entitled "Austin Powers." Get it?

When AOL bought Time Warner, and when Viacom bought CBS, and when Disney bought ABC (and, when Steve Brill jumped into bed with everyone he covers), all of the esteemed editors involved vowed that synergy would never influence their editorial decisions -- heck, they'll be even tougher now! -- and besides, as Kara Swisher wrote in her Jonathan Sacks profile, "outsiders will certainly cry foul if the giant makes a wrong move."

Well that's a nice idea, and it's totally false. To my knowledge, there isn't a single person in the country who tracks how Big Media covers its corporate cousins and partners, even on a part-time basis (if I'm wrong, please someone tell me). It's too vast, too tedious, maybe too 1980s (like divestment ... or the 4th Amendment), and turns out no one much wants to pay for the service. Even when that media watchdog Brill's Content published a sleep-inducing tome on the marketing of Austin Powers, it didn't see fit to examine how CNN or People covered Time Warner's new blockbuster, beyond the ground-breaking observation that the movie "also benefited from corporate synergy."

Think about that the next time you see some million-dollar Manhattan peacock huff and puff about how "the marketplace will catch us if we slip!" Actually, the marketplace is tired, and can barely raise a murmur of dissent when CBS surreptitiously dedicates a half-hour of prime time to promote an Internet company it happens to own (it airs next week; check it out).

With this kind of resistance, it's no wonder that Sacks and his ilk are bulldozing every notion of journalism that includes romance, fun or basic values. Why not? Reporters will work for any fool with money, and put up with any old crap. Right? Right?


It may sound like I'm worried about all of this. Truth is, I'm not, beyond the mild annoyance of having the Tom Brokaw/David Shaw/Cokie Roberts generation continuing to stake a claim on my profession's high ground for another year or two.

My hope is based on the market. Consolidation of expression (print journalism, music, film, broadcasting, books, Web publishing) creates giant companies that become more inefficient and out-of-touch with each new employee. This conformism in turn breeds backlash, and nourishes the soil for independents. It's a well-established cycle in all businesses catering to the public tastes: Prohibition begets jazz, suburbia begets rock & roll, corporate rock begets punk. There are too many weirdos with energy in this country to allow a handful of bland, patronizing COOs to define our common media experience.

For all the frantic mergers and acquisitions, the largest media companies' average share of our attention span is decreasing. For all its stunning growth, AOL controls the same amount of the global online market -- around 12% -- that it did in 1994. The Internet is still the best do-it-yourself tool ever created, and access to it gets cheaper and more widespread every minute.

Jonathan Sacks, like every New Media geek eager to justify his shaky new quasi-journalism business, makes sure to mention how some of his staff used to work at respectable-sounding news organizations like the Associated Press or the Washington Post. So, in addition to exploiting the subscribers they attract, he and his kind are using quality reporters and editors as a kind of ethical cover to prove that the operation's legit. If the pedigrees leave, so does his cover.

'There are too many weirdos with energy in this country to allow a handful of bland, patronizing COOs to define our common media experience.'

With the possible exception of Yahoo!, no huge media company could survive without outstanding in-house content to sell. Without good journalists, they would all collapse. Yet they insult journalists every day, with their actions and words, even during the best journalism job market ever. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, it's time to walk.

Cloned pigs named "dot-com" notwithstanding, no trend in business or life is irreversible. Workplace drug testing is actually on the decline in our tight labor market, the Los Angeles Times discovered. It took the most evil cops scandal in L.A. history, but civil liberties vis-a-vis the police are now actually being discussed openly in public. If reporters and editors have been demoralized for 15 years, well, it's still not too late to get back in touch with our inner Royko. Jobs are falling from the sky like ripe fruit, and the Internet has made some of them truly interesting and/or lucrative. To paraphrase Rage Against the Machine, there's never been a better time than now.

Here's what we can do to reclaim our profession from the corporate jerks:

  • Stop using the phrases "the real world" and "get over it." The Real World is a bad television show that simulates reality, not a valid excuse for working for unethical cretins. "Get over it" is what the Brits and French told the Czechs after they let Hitler take their country, and what noted tech billionaires say about our concerns for privacy. They were all wrong.
  • Stop shrugging at the debaucheries in our culture. Yes, it's very hard to select your outrage in an outrageous world, but when the entire radio dial sucks, or when the Post Office commissions a positive Showtime movie starring a sympathetic postal worker, it's time to call B.S.
  • Stop shrugging at the debaucheries in your newsrooms. When a local car dealer gets a story killed, write an opinion column in your own newspaper, or talk on the record to reporters like me. If they fire you, it will be a huge public embarrassment ... and you'll probably get a better job.
  • Stop trying to "create content" for software companies, or other vendors who primarily sell products, not news. There are enough other jobs out there; you are just being used for your past job titles, and you are actively blurring the lines between editorial and shilling.
  • Someone please start up some funny and mean "synergy watch" Web site, shaming these creeps every time they insult our intelligence.
  • Look around for people who are having a lot of fun, and join them. (You can start off with Warren Hinckle, who is threatening to make the San Francisco Examiner the most interesting newspaper in America). One of the few true joys of working primarily on the Internet is discovering and meeting weird smart people who love newspapering and never use the phrase "real world," except as part of a joke. More and more, these people are making money and putting out the kind of journalism that attracted us to this profession in the first place.
  • Take some solace in anarchy. After the AOL Time Warner announcement, the people who were most gloomy were ones who've had newspaper jobs for 25 years. As Joab Jackson wrote in a memorable column, "What few monopoly-fearing pundits may not adequately consider, but the independent producers of content realize all too well, is that it is we, the people, who have the power."

If journalism suffers at the hands of the New Bosses, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Is there any hope for the recovery of honest and ethical journalism? Tell us what you think.

Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at

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