Deja vu: the Atlantic, Scientology, and a classic letter by E.B. White

Today, the Atlantic announced it was pulling an “advertorial” singing the praises of the Church of Scientology.  Slate has details:

The sponsored content drew the attention—and ire—of both reporters and readers, and no doubt sparked an untold number of newsroom conversations about the ethics and optics of such revenue-generating efforts.

In place of the the advertorial headlined “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” that trumpeted the opening of a dozen new Scientology churches around the world, the magazine is now running a note to readers alerting them that the ad campaign has been temporarily halted while the magazine reviews its official policy for such sponsored content:

We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.

Poynter’s Julie Moos and the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple both have solid rundowns on the time-line of the advertorial and the overly pro-Scientology remarks that originally dominated the comment section. (It appears as though it was the comment moderation, and not the content itself, that first raised many journalists’ eyebrows.)

In short, the ad package went live at 12:25 p.m. ET yesterday and remained up for roughly eleven hours before being yanked at around 11:30 p.m. During that time it was shared more than 3,500 times on Twitter and Facebook, according to Poynter. The Post reports that the chatter trickled the whole way to the desk of Atlantic president M. Scott Havens before the decision was made to take the content down.

The advertorial—also called “native advertising” in industry parlance—is far from a new form of revenue generation for magazines and newspapers, and one that has been increasingly used online as they look to boost digital revenues. The Atlantic has been using native ads for at least the past three years, and the program now accounts for roughly half of the magazine’s digital ad revenue. Other websites, ranging from Buzzfeed to Slate, have also increasingly looked to harness sponsored content to boost their bottom lines.

You can read more at Slate’s link.  

The kerfuffle reminded me of an exchange that happened back in 1976, involving the great E.B. White and the editors of Esquire.  The correspondance was reprinted online last year by the website Letters of Note: 

Late-1975, Esquire magazine announced that a forthcoming 23-page article by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Harrison Salisbury, to be published in their February 1976 issue, had been sponsored by Xerox. After hearing of the arrangement, E. B. White — author of Charlotte’s Web and long-serving contributor to The New Yorker — wrote a letter to his local newspaper and voiced his disapproval. In the coming weeks, Xerox responded with a letter to White; White then replied to Xerox.

E. B. White’s argument was so strong that Xerox subsequently pulled the plug on their plans.

The second letter White wrote about the Esquire scheme is wonderful, both passionate and prescient. It should be studied by every journalism student (and every practicing journalist, in fact.) You can read the exchange in its entirety here.

But White’s conclusion is worth noting:

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.

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.

About a hundred and fifty years ago, Tocqueville wrote: “The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind.” Today, we chuckle at this antique characterization. But about fifty years ago, when I was a young journalist, I had the good fortune to encounter an editor who fitted the description quite closely. Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker, was deficient in education and had—at least to all outward appearances—a vulgar turn of mind. What he did possess, though, was the ferocity of independence. He was having a tough time finding money to keep his floundering little sheet alive, yet he was determined that neither money nor infiuence would ever corrupt his dream or deflower his text. His boiling point was so low as to be comical. The faintest suggestion of the shadow of advertising in his news and editorial columns would cause him to erupt. He would explode in anger, the building would reverberate with his wrath, and his terrible swift sword would go flashing up and down the corridors. For a young man, it was an impressive sight and a memorable one. Fifty years have not dimmed for me either the spectacle of Ross’s ferocity or my own early convictions—which were identical to his. He has come to my mind often while I’ve been composing this reply to your inquiry.

I hope I’ve clarified by a little bit my feelings about the anatomy of the press and the dangers of sponsorship of articles. Thanks for giving me the chance to speak my piece.

A footnote: one of the many little details I love about this is that White decided to launch his crusade against Esquire in the pages of a tiny newspaper in Maine, the Ellsworth American. He knew it would get attention and might get results—and would give considerable publicity to his local paper, whose editor was a friend. White didn’t issue a press release, write to the New York Times, or talk to Walter Cronkite. He typed a letter, put it in an envelope, licked a stamp, put it in the corner, and then dropped it in mailbox to see what would happen.  For the price of a postage stamp, he made a little journalistic history.  Bless him.


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