A few weeks back, I wrote about a Louis Harris Interactive survey that was introduced to the world in a Daily Beast column in which the author essentially used the announcement of the survey results as a platform for explicitly shilling one of his books.
At the time, I thought to myself, “Reporters for online media, what do they know about journalistic ethics?” and focused on how odd that Louis Harris would allow itself to be used so cynically, just to get its survey featured in this beast of an Internet newspaper.
But now I’m concerned! This unethical and self-serving blurring of news and advertising has invaded the hallowed (and now frequently hollowed) Sunday New York Times. It’s in Tim Wendel’s 11-paragraph story on page two of the sports section in yesterday’s national edition. After posing the question of who threw the fastest pitch of all times, mentioning that he has interviewed a lot of baseball lifers on the issue and trotting out the usual suspects like Koufax, Grove, Walter Johnson and Gibson, he closes with: “There is no definitive answer, but I think I came up with a pretty good one. It’s right there in my book, ‘High Heat.’”
Now that’s a direct approach…and as crude as Ralph Cramden in a locker room…and with ethics emanating the scent of “Eau de Madoff.”
Can you believe that the editors of the Times let Wendel get away with transforming an entire article into a marketing piece for his book? As shameless as Wendel is for making such a naked plug, the Times should be ashamed for allowing it. Do you think maybe it’s a new policy, maybe, in lieu of getting raises, reporters get to promote their own books?
(Note that the story never was put into the online edition, perhaps because someone realized how egregiously self serving it is.)
Wendel had so many other ways to promote his book without trying to pass off as journalism what many PR professionals would call a “promotional backgrounder.” For example, he could:
- Write a piece that tells one story from the book, features one pitcher or settles one small question and at the end of the article and a few asterisks, have a sentence citing the book as the source.
- Put the piece I outlined in the bullet just above into the “Week in Review” section or the Op/Ed page.
- Ask a sports columnist to review the book.
The approach he took doesn’t represent a new form of journalism, because the marriage of public relations and journalism is consummated every day in entertainment, lifestyle, health, business and sports sections. But usually journalists write these hybrid articles following the strict ethical standards of news reporting. Wendel has not.
I want to close this entry with a quick lesson in propaganda. In my description of Wendel’s article I practiced the technique of selective listing. I’m a bit of a baseball buff and the pitchers I mentioned from Wendel’s article are, I believe, the greatest pitchers of all time not named Seaver. But I did not list Nolan Ryan or Bob Feller, even though Wendel spends the best part of his article talking about these two flamethrowers. I think both are among the most overrated athletes of all time, precisely because fans tend to overvalue strikeouts. But getting a lot of strikeouts doesn’t make them great pitchers, because you also have to avoid giving up all those walks and late inning blasts. So I left them off my list to promote in a subtle way my special agenda, and waited until now to tell you to illustrate the rhetorical trick. But by doing so, I distorted Wendel’s argument, although not in a way that unfairly advanced my own. Selection, especially selection of experts, is an excellent technique for shaping how the public perceives an issue, because it limits the choices to those preselected by the writer, or whoever is paying the writer.