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

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

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

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 Letters of E. B. White (public library).

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 the SEO-optimized, sensationalist headlines of the BuzzWorthy industrial complex, 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

BP

Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon

How Milton Glaser subverted Steve Jobs, or what the Mona Lisa has to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

What, exactly, makes an iconic image? You know, the kind that permeates pop culture to become imprinted on our collective conscience, achieving a status of instant recognition and near-universal appeal? That’s exactly what Oxford Trinity College professor Martin Kemp explores in Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon — a fascinating journey into the heart of modern iconography, veering across art, architecture, advertising, religion, science, and a wealth more. From the Mona Lisa to Che Guevara to Einstein’s E=mc² to Milton Glaser’s I♥NY, Kemp uses 11 such iconic images to examine the 11 key categories he identifies, lavishly illustrated in 165 color images. Beneath them all runs a common undercurrent of elements that hold the secret to all icons — among them, simplicity of message, robustness, and openness of interpretation.

Some types of images are specific — like Lisa and Che — while some are generic, such as the heart shape. The generic ones tend to seep gradually into general consciousness. The heart shape appeared on playing cards and became the religious symbol of the sacred heart, before becoming the ubiquitous symbol of love. It takes a designer of genius, like Milton Glaser, to refresh its power in the service of a specific cause. We all know I♥NY. But New York largely surrendered the ‘Big Apple’ to Steve Jobs.” ~ Martin Kemp

Mona Lisa, digitally restored. Photo courtesy of Pascal Cotte
Enrique Avila Gonzalez, Che Guevara. Ministry of the Interior, Havana, Cuba
Felix de Weldon, Marines Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, Virginia, Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery
BFF Architects and Izé, DNA door handles, London, Royal Society.

Kemp has an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal offering five lessons on successful iconography based on the case studies explored in the book.

Kemp also observes that even the icons of modern science, like DNA and E=mc², have taken on a quasi-religious dimension — which, of course, we already knew, even just by looking at the many geek-rebels who inked themselves with science. But, in fact, much of this iconography is based on pop culture mythology that isn’t necessarily rooted in truth. Kemp notes:

I assumed that Einstein’s famous formula for the equivalence of mass and energy, E=mc² had appeared in his renowned set of papers published in 1905. Einstein scholars insisted it was there. But it was not. In that precise form, the equation seems to have been visited on Einstein as a simplification of his ideas, cemented in the public mind by its association with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The well-known tends not to be true in such cases.”

Part Iron Fists, part The Myth of Pop Culture, part The Century of the Self, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon is an essential effort to understand who we came to worship what we worship and why the iconography of consumerism has such an enduring hold on us, whether or not we want to admit it. And though the book was written partly as a blueprint for branding, a subversive reading of it also offers a blueprint to the opposite — how to loosen the grip of commercial culture by better understanding the engineered mesmerism by which it transfixes us.

Images courtesy of Oxford University Press

BP

Made in Russia: Vintage Curiosities of Soviet Design

What the 1980 Olympics have to do with IKEA and medieval helmets for modern role-playing games.

During the Cold War, the world on the other side of the Iron Curtain certainly yielded its fare share of design curiosities, from its eerie monuments to its various propaganda to its haunting photography to its prison tattoo subculture. But nowhere does that world’s peculiar design culture shine more dazzlingly than in Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design — a fascinating and irreverent compendium of 50 masterpieces of agitprop graphic and industrial design, collected by editor Michael Idov, from cross-cultural icons like the LOMO camera and the Sputnik to mundane yet bizarre items like carbonated tap water dispensers, fishnet grocery bags and a color-coding system for caviar that endures to this day. Essays by notable Russian artists and writers Boris Kachka, Vitaly Komar, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar contextualize and frame the odd artifacts, many of which I remember creeping into my own childhood in Eastern Europe — and some of which you might recognize, appropriately appropriated, on IKEA shelves.

The Russian bear Misha, mascot for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow

During the games themselves, Misha appeared as a giant balloon that was released during the closing ceremonies as a cartoon version of him shed tears on a screen and a choir of children sang ‘Good-bye, our sweet Misha.’ There was not a dry eye in the stadium. One can only imagine the tears that the mascot’s further fate would elicit: The balloon was recovered on the outskirts hours later, and put in storage where it was abandoned to be devoured by rats.”

The vertushka, a dialless phone made to receive important calls, but unable to make any
The monthly news and music magazine Krugozor ran from 1964 to 1993, each issue featuring sixteen ‘pages’ of vinyl covers for records combined with stories, interviews and psychedelic artwork
Collapsible communal drinking cup

The thirsty Soviet may have had his choice of beverages — soda water from a machine, kvass from a barrel — but rarely, if ever, did these things come with a paper cup, let alone a plastic one. Like communism itself, disposable dishware existed only in theory. In practice, what was available to the masses was the highly suspect communal drinking glass. The collapsible cup was thus a telescopic beacon of hope in an icky world of strangers’ germs, and a modest triumph of individuality to boot.”

Covers from the design magazine Technical Aesthetics (Tekhnicheskaya Estetika), published between 1973 and 1991
The Saturnas vacuum cleaners weren’t merely indestructible space-age home appliances, their top hemispheres were also persevered as prized props for post-Soviet geeks, who used them as medieval helmets in role-playing games
Banki, homeopatic glass suction cups

A pair of tweezers wrapped in cotton are soaked in vodka or rubbing alcohol and set on fire. The flaming pincers are then stuck inside the glass jar, which sucks out the air so that the edges of the ‘cup’ will form perfect suction with the skin. In one swift motion, the flaming pincers are removed from the now oxygen-less glass jar, and, with the sound of a horrible kiss, the cup is then stuck to the invalid’s back, supposedly to pull the mucous away from the lungs, but in reality to scare the toddler into thinking his parents are raving pyromaniacs with serious intent to hurt…. Even today I loathe to replace a burned-out light bulb because a banka so resembles a hollowed-out version of the same.”

The zany ghost of a bygone zeitgeist, Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is as much an offbeat design ethnography as it is a precious and peculiar slice of the space-time continuum.

via The Atlantic; images via Foreign Policy

BP

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