Commentary

Who Doesn't Remember His First Time?

You read about the Gawker story and got your dander up. Of course you would; nobody likes a suckup and nobody likes a coward. But for me, ahhhhhh. Such nostalgia.

The story I refer to, of course, was the item on Gawker about the item on BuzzFeed -- the righteous callout by Arabelle Sicardi of Unilever/Dove hypocrisy for patronizing women on the subject of “real beauty” while simultaneously selling them all sorts of crap falsely promising the unattainable fake beauty the campaign nominally scorns.

Oddly, as Gawker gleefully pointed out, Sicardi’s post soon vanished from the face of the Internet. Like the puddle of the late Wicked Witch of the West, all that could be found in its place was an editor’s note reading: “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.”

BuzzFeed staff was subsequently enlightened as to how Sicardi’s commentary fell short of editorial standards:

When we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell. (That’s a good rule in general, by the way.) We can and should report on conversations that are happening around something that we have opinions about, but using our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed’s voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn’t in line with BuzzFeed Life’s tone and editorial mission.

Uh huh. Also, Unilever has been a major BuzzFeed advertiser.

Now, I grant you, it’s hard to summon a whole lot of outrage about editorial sanctity at BuzzFeed, where staff-generated content and native listicles are interchangeable. Furthermore, BuzzFeed is indeed something of the anti-Gawker; it doesn’t trade in snark. On the other hand, I was not born yesterday. Au contraire.

Once upon a time, when the world was young and you couldn’t see movies on your wristwatch, I worked at a startup that represented the cutting edge of publishing technology. It was called USA Today.

The Nation’s Newspaper was famous for its four-color weather map, its concise page-one articles, the proto-clickbait known derisively as “factoids” and the compulsion for scope at the expense of depth. Even in its almost self-parodic early form, it wasn’t a bad newspaper, exactly -- just an ambitious venture in packaging with no pretense of or desire for great journalism. 

USA Today was to newspapering what Appleby’s is to cuisine. It was also very quickly in big trouble.

After pouring a half-billion dollars into the venture, and despite very strong popular acceptance, Gannett in 1983 was getting very little advertising traction. This had something to do with Madison Avenue’s inability to reckon with new media (sound familiar?) and something to do with the Reagan recession.

It was in this environment that one day the paper’s plucky advertising-and-marketing columnist decided to give readers a foreshadowing of his next 25 years and singled out the new Campbell Soup Co. ad campaign for denunciation.

The campaign, titled “Soup is good food,” abused a legitimate scientific concept called “nutrition density” to cite irrelevant factoids grossly out of context, fostering the illusion that Campbell’s was ultra nourishing -- versus the mainly empty, majorly salt-laden calories it actually is. It was despicable pseudoscience and the righteous columnist found experts to dismantle its premise in 600 concise words.

Then that intrepid muckraker wandered over toward the Money section’s managing editor’s office, where the Wednesday dummy was sitting. This was a sheaf of papers with all the next day’s articles and ads roughed out, a document of gathering interest to a staff fearing shutdown. And what should the columnist spy, next to his column placement? Why, it was a full-page ad for Campbell’s soup. 

His eyes widened. Immediately he ducked into the boss’s office suggesting, as a matter of courtesy, that the expensive ad be moved elsewhere in the paper, perhaps to a page where the adjacent editorial matter didn’t savage it as a pack of lies. What he didn’t imagine was that management, as an even greater courtesy, would spike his column altogether. Kill it. Delete it. Replace it with something, anything that wouldn’t piss off the Campbell Soup Co.

This became a mini-scandal, reported by The Wall Street Journal with exactly the squeals of delight we detected last week on Gawker. In that Journal piece, USA Today’s executive editor denied bending over for an advertiser. “We’re just not set up to criticize advertising,” he said.

Uh huh. Subsequent reporting revealed that explanation for the bullshit it obviously was. Incredibly, though, the columnist believed the lie -- which I know, of course, because the columnist was me.

Hence my nostalgia. After all, who doesn’t remember his first time?

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments about "Who Doesn't Remember His First Time?".
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  1. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, April 13, 2015 at 11:05 a.m.

    When I worked at (the old) Newsweek tobacco advertsing kept serious reporting of the anti smoking movement out of the edit pages for YEARS...

  2. Matthew Schultz from GSP, April 13, 2015 at 2:19 p.m.

    Bob,

    "Cynictico Ergo Sum?"

    USA Today is the Mother of Buzz Feed and all the other pablum for the  masses dreck that has resulted in a world where The Quick and the Thick are in charge.

    USA Today paved the way for Kim Kardashian's oily backside — it made the gross, stupid and trivial mainstream journialism.  

    What I don't understand from your piece is, am I supposed to be encouraged that USA Today was a virulent intellectual virus whose terminal symptoms are progessing at a slower pace than predicated?

    That's, to use a USA Today term is, "The Brightener"?

    So, it all sucks, but it sucks not too much worse than 30 years back — that's today's Kremlinesque "Brightener" from Don Roberto?

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