Brain Pickings

E. B. White on the Free Press and the Evils of Corporate Interests in Media

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“Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse.”

In 1923, a prominent journalist bemoaned the death of the editor and the rise of the circulation manager as newspapers began grubbing for ever-more advertising revenue tailored their content around that goal, rather than around readers’ best interests. More than a half-century later, in the fall of 1975, Esquire magazine announced a forthcoming 23-page article by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Harrison Salisbury, to be published in their February 1976 issue and sponsored by Xerox — an arrangement in which Salisbury would receive no payment from Esquire, but would be paid $40,000, plus another $15,000 in expenses, by the Xerox Corporation. The announcement spurred profound consternation in E. B. White, which he articulated with equal parts eloquence and rigor in his letters to the editor of Esquire and to Xerox’s Director of Communications, culled from the fantastic The Letters of E.B. White.

At the heart of the exchange is an infinitely important, at once timeless and incredibly timely discussion of what it means to have free press.

In the first letter, White writes:

This, it would seem to me, is not only a new idea in publishing, it charts a clear course for the erosion of the free press in America. Mr. Salisbury is a former associate editor of the New York Times and should know better. Esquire is a reputable sheet and should know better. But here we go—the Xerox-Salisbury-Esquire axis in full cry!

[…]

Apparently Mr. Salisbury had a momentary qualm about taking on the Xerox job. The Times reports him as saying, “At first I thought, gee whiz, should I do this?” But he quickly compared his annoying doubts and remembered that big corporations had in the past been known to sponsor “cultural enterprises,” such as opera. The emergence of a magazine reporter as a cultural enterprise is as stunning a sight as the emergence of a butterfly from a cocoon. Mr. Salisbury must have felt great, escaping from his confinement.

Well, it doesn’t take a giant intellect to detect in all this the shadow of disaster. If magazines decide to farm out their writers to advertisers and accept the advertiser’s payment to the writer and to the magazine, then the periodicals of this country will be far down the drain and will become so fuzzy as to be indistinguishable from the controlled press in other parts of the world.

E. B. White

The points White raises reflect some of my own profound concerns about journalism, media, and the free press today. On the one hand, a large part of me — the part that has been publishing an ad-free curiosity catalog supported by reader donations for the past seven years — believes that whenever corporate interests and advertising revenue become necessary for the production of content, both the spirit of journalism and the reader’s best interests suffer, and we get atrocities like HuffPostified SEO-optimized sensationalist headlines, vacant linkbait infographics, and endless click-click-click slideshows. On the other hand, I remain keenly aware that quality journalism — especially ambitious endeavors like investigative pieces and longform features — is resource-intensive and requires funding, and the idea that readers would be willing to fund this kind of work directly is at best utopian and at worst highly unrealistic in a fragmented media landscape of commodified content.

It’s the same ambivalence one might feel at seeing a Fortune 100 CEO on the TED stage, as was the case with Bill Ford and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi at last year’s TED Long Beach. On the one hand, TED’s entire media brand is based on “ideas worth spreading” for the public good, which requires a certain amount of bravery. There can be no bravery when one is accountable to a board of trustees or investors, because the “users,” “consumers,” or whatever dehumanized placeholder we choose for the audience of a product, service, or piece of information should be its sole appropriate stakeholders. On the other hand, in a capitalist society, large corporations may be the only ones with the fiscal power to effect tangible change beyond the mere talk of idealism.

Shortly after his letter, White received a response from W. B. Jones, Xerox’s Director of Communications, featuring the following rationalization:

It seemed to us that the sponsorship was not subject to question provided: 1. Both the magazine and the writer had earned reputations for absolute integrity; 2. Our sponsorship was open and identified to readers; 3. The writer was paid ‘up front,’ so that his fee did not depend in any way on our reaction to the piece; 4. The writer understood that this was a one-shot assignment and he’d get no other from Xerox, no matter what we thought of the piece; 5. The magazine retained full editorial control of the project.

White’s response to Jones gets to the heart of democracy and free press with astounding precision:

The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It’s only when there are a few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails. For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters—the truth.

White goes on to argue that when the ownership of media lies in the hands of a single entity, be that a government or a media mogul, the direction of editorial accountability shift dangerously in a direction other than the reader’s. The multiplicity and sovereignty of media, he argues, is essential to ensuring we don’t live in a filter bubble of information.

Whenever money changes hands, something goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with the circumstances. It would be hard to resist the suspicion that Esquire feels indebted to Xerox, that Mr. Salisbury feels indebted to both, and that the ownership, or sovereignty, of Esquire has been nibbled all around the edges.

Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse. The temptations are great, and there is an opportunist behind every bush. A funded article is a tempting morsel for any publication—particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet. A funded assignment is a tempting dish for a writer, who may pocket a much larger fee than he is accustomed to getting. And sponsorship is attractive to the sponsor himself, who, for one reason or another, feels an urge to penetrate the editorial columns after being so long pent up in the advertising pages. These temptations are real, and if the barriers were to be let down I believe corruption and abuse would soon follow. Not all corporations would approach subsidy in the immaculate way Xerox did or in the same spirit of benefaction. There are a thousand reasons for someone’s wishing to buy his way into print, many of them unpalatable, all of them to some degree self-serving. Buying and selling space in news columns could become a serious disease of the press. If it reached epidemic proportions, it could destroy the press. I don’t want IBM or the National Rifle Association providing me with a funded spectacular when I open my paper. I want to read what the editor and the publisher have managed to dig up on their own—and paid for out of the till.

White drives the point home with his signature style of the deeply personal conveying the broadly relevant:

My affection for the free press in a democracy goes back a long way. My love for it was my first and greatest love. If I felt a shock at the news of the Salisbury-Xerox-Esquire arrangement, it was because the sponsorship principle seemed to challenge and threaten everything I believe in: that the press must not only be free, it must be fiercely independent — to survive and to serve. Not all papers are fiercely independent, God knows, but there are always enough of them around to provide a core of integrity and an example that others feel obliged to steer by. The funded article is not in itself evil, but it is the beginning of evil, and it is an invitation to evil. I hope the invitation will not again be extended, and, if extended, I hope it will be declined.

Nearly another half-century later, “the funded article” describes, directly or indirectly, the vast majority of today’s information landscape. The basic ad-supported monetization model of media today, online and off, is a legacy model that only further commodifies content, erodes editorial integrity, and does the audience — who should be, to reiterate because this can’t be emphasized enough, the only appropriate stakeholder — a tragic disservice. Whoever figures out an intelligent alternative will save journalism from itself and rekindle the hope for a truly free press.

Letters of Note

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