If Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had written The Front Page today they'd have to make sure their audiences understood they were talking about editorial copy and not a front-page ad. Or at least that's a difference they'd have to make clear to L.A. Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein, who seems to have forgotten it. Thursday the Times ran an L-shaped ad on its front page for the NBC TV show Southland, part of which resembled editorial copy — a fake news story, in other words, related to the show. A tsunami of protest predictably followed, even though an NBC logo and the small word “Advertisement” had appeared at the top of the ad — a heretofore unspoken barrier had been pushed aside, just as it had on a smaller scale Tuesday at UCLA's Daily Bruin. A petition quickly circulated among Times staff members and L.A. Observed reported that Hartenstein had originally contemplated running the fake news story where the Times' lead story traditionally appears.
Today's Times acknowledges the brouhaha while quoting Hartenstein's rationale that he's trying to save the sinking paper by pumping revenue into it. The story also reveals that the fake ad ran over the objections of editor Russ Stanton — and was an idea first pitched by Hartenstein to NBC. The Times piece describes further internal dissent over this coming Sunday's four-page ad supplement flacking the Jamie Foxx movie The Soloist, which was based on Times columnist Steve Lopez's articles about a homeless musician.
“Although labeled as an ad supplement,” says the Times feature, “the section's typography and layout mimic those of a regular Times news section.”
That's going to go over swell in the Monday morning media blogs, if the Southland caper
is any indication. In his Friday blog, Bob Steele of the Poynter
Institute called the ad “a bad idea with serious ethical implications.”
Steele explained why the ad was so insidious:
“Making the ad
look like news in story style and writing trades on the credibility of
news content, with the hope that readers will be more inclined to read
the ad and give it greater credence . . . The Times' execs are chopping away at the journalistic foundation. They are selling pieces of the paper's journalistic soul.”
Or, as the Times staff
petition says, “Placing a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of
our integrity and our journalistic standards.”