November 2, 2009, - 4:57 pm

“Independent” Mainstream Media: Advertisers Called Shots on Detroit Free Press Coverage

By Debbie Schlussel

Hey, guess what? Target and Humana dictated what the Detroit Free Press covered and when. How? Well they wrote out a check.

The Detroit Free Press motto atop the paper’s front page is, “On Guard for 178 Years.”  More like, “On Guard for Target, Humana, and Whoever Else Will Pay This Sinking Ship to Plug Some Holes.”

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Detroit Free Press: Bought & Paid For

It’s yet another example of mainstream media’s “independent coverage” that isn’t. More evidence that they need to look in the mirror when they criticize blogs and other online sources that have done the work they refuse to do.

Recent court decisions over FCC government regulations exclusive to blogs dictate that I’m supposed to disclose (and I do) whenever a party I write about gives me compensation in the form of paid advertising and/or free merchandise.

Yet, as  I noted, major corporate advertisers (Target and Humana, Inc. and probably more that we don’t know about because the Freep won’t tell us) are directing what the Detroit Free Press covers and when it covers it.  And the Free Press doesn’t have to disclose this in its stories, whether online or in print.  Nor has it.  And who knows who else and what else is dictating what  you read in the Detroit Free Press.  (I’ve already disclosed that Free Press Islamic reporter Niraj Warikoo–who covers the Islamic and Jewish Communities wrote campaign literature for a man he regularly covers in his stories.)  But, hey, no conflict of interest, right?

A series of articles that appeared in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press about Medicare open enrollment probably didn’t seem unusual to readers amid the national health-care debate.

But the idea for the articles didn’t come from an editor or reporter at the paper. It came from health insurer Humana Inc., which bought an ad next to one of the articles, say executives at the newspaper and its publisher. The origin of the series shows how financial pressures are challenging some of the firmest tenets of newspapering.

“Challenging” them? The Freep is whoring itself out. They have no tenets. Those are now long gone out the window.

The Free Press risks raising questions about its editorial independence, one of the attributes that distinguish newspapers from other news outlets in the minds of many readers.

Ya think?

Executives of the Free Press, which is owned by Gannett Co., say that while the idea for Sunday’s articles originated with Humana, the advertiser had no involvement or say in them, and the paper undertook the special Medicare section because it involved an issue that was topical and relevant to readers.

Yeah, right. And if you believe that I have two dying Detroit major newspapers to sell you.

A Humana spokesman says the company simply asked whether the Free Press was planning a special section on the Medicare enrollment period and, on learning that it was, decided to buy an ad in the section.

Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly how it happened. I think I’ll call the Freep and ask them if they’re planning a special section on Debbie Schlussel, so I can buy an ad.

The Free Press . . . included a new approach to advertisers in which the paper saw itself more as a business partner.

The new approach was in effect in late August when a media buyer with Humana asked an ad-sales representative at the partnership if the Free Press had plans to write about open enrollment for Medicare, according to Susie Ellwood, the partnership’s chief executive. The ad rep then floated the idea to the partnership’s Client Solutions group, which Ms. Ellwood says was set up a couple of years ago, in part to act as a liaison between the business and news staffs.

The group, in turn, took the idea to the newsroom, where Mr. Anger says he and senior managing editor Jeff Taylor were “interested and amenable” to the story. . . . The sales staff then sold the package to other advertisers, including Detroit insurer Health Alliance Plan, Ms. Ellwood says. There was no indication in the section that Humana had played a role in its conception.

Ah, yes, Jeff Taylor. Let me tell you about him. He defended the paper’s decisions to fabricate stories about Israel, which he admitted were phony and which later had to be redacted, against his stringent objections. He also defended the Free Press’ decision to censor all references to Hezbollah, including arrested suspects’ Islamic names, from a Free Press reporter’s story on bridge card fraud. Yup, he’s a real “independent” guy . . . when independence means the money is right or his reporter is lying to protect the right religious group (Islam).

The publisher has redrawn other traditional boundaries. On consecutive Sundays in late September, the Free Press ran education-related stories in its front section: one about the benefits of K-8 schools and another about programs to help financially strapped schools and students. Both articles appeared above ads for Target touting the retailer’s initiatives to help Detroit-area schools. Generally, papers make layout decisions within the newsroom, not in connection with ad placements.

The Free Press’s Mr. Anger says Target had no involvement in the decision to write about the topics covered in those articles.

Uh-huh. Sure, it didn’t.

But Target did have a say in when they appeared in the paper. It had asked the publisher about its plans for education coverage, which led to a conversation between the partnership and the newsroom.

After the publisher relayed to Target the stories the paper had planned, Target said it wanted the stories and accompanying ads to appear on Sept. 20 and Sept. 27, when it could reach the biggest audience. A Target spokesperson confirmed the collaboration.

Wow, a major newspaper telling a major American corporation which stories it’s running and when? Sounds like the Free Press is more of a “business partner” with Target (and Humana) than a reliable media source. But we already knew that. This is just more proof.

“One of the things I think newsrooms have to realize,” Mr. Anger says, “is we’re here to cover the news in an unvarnished way, but we’re also here to facilitate commerce.”

Uh, sorry, Paul Anger. You can’t have it both ways. Either you’re against prostitution . . . or you’re a whore.

In the Free Press’ case, it’s clearly the latter. The next time you read anything in the Free Press, you’ll have to wonder which advertiser got them to run it and how much they got paid.

Oh, and shocker, the Free Press didn’t write anything negative about Target or Humana in any of its coverage of the topics pertaining to them. Gee, I wonder why.

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5 Responses

Just follow the money… besides their blatant partisanship and ideological bias, today’s newspapers and TV news shows have to make a profit. And that means they have to compromise editorial independence to remain alive. If no one buys it, they’re out of business. We know now there’s a lot more the MSM has been keeping its audience from learning about – then again its the only business that can tell their customers to shove it! They’re still declining.

NormanF on November 2, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Well they got caught. I agree with you, Debbie, but the real story here is that they are so loose about this that the Freep was actually caught. I don’t which “news” media outlets are not whoring themselves one way or the other–are there any?

BB on November 2, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Check out WATCHDOG.COM The man that runs this website was supposed to be the consumer watchdog for the Hartford Courant which is a Connecticut newspaper. The only problem was that management gave him a list of advertisers he was not allowed to say anything negative about. Type “fired from courant” into the watchdog web site search window to find his stories about this.

Douglas S. on November 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Maybe of interest: the end of the trail for newspapers, etc.:
there is “newspaper death watch”, dealing with the demise
and closure of newspapers, often providing the essential
financial data to all that:
http://www.newspaperdeathwatch.com/

and then there is a site dealing with folding magazines:
http://www.magazinedeathpool.com/

Also of interest might be the fate of a website set up by
journalists of a folded paper, the Rocky Mountain News.
This one is of interest because it gives a proper of the
vanishing readers. There were just 200 subscribers left over
from a once pretty formidable newspaper with a readership
of maybe close to 200 000 (my guess here) years ago.
http://www.businessinsider.com/ex-newspaper-staffers-denver-news-site-to-end-2009-10

JF on November 3, 2009 at 5:09 am

Guess you didn’t notice that the Wall Street Journal who ran the original story on this, (guess you don’t feel attribution is appropriate), ran a correction that supported the Free Press contention that nobody dictated anything to them.

M: Quit lying. Not only did I attribute, I quoted and linked to the WSJ. And there was no such correction that “supported the Free Press contention.” You must be one of the Freep “reporters” on the payroll of the paper’s, um, “business partners.” DS

Mudbug on November 24, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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