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Don't Stop the Presses Over Bogus LA Times Ad Controversy

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The buzz of newspaper-critic circles this morning—and, oooh, what exciting buzz that field generates!—is a front page ad in the LA Times for the new NBC cop drama Southland. (You can see it here, in a PDF that I assume will change with tomorrow’s edition of the paper.) 

I wrote a column for Salon almost a decade ago when there was a similar “controversy” over USA Today’s decision to run page one ads, and I don’t have much different to say about this one: the only thing worrisome about bogus non-controversies like this one is that they show that the editors and J-school professors who wring their hands over them can’t tell a real threat to journalistic integrity from a fake one. 

The business conflicts that threaten good journalism are the hidden ones: advertiser pressure behind the scenes, decisions that get made so as not to alienate sources or business leaders or readers. An ad on page one is the opposite of this: it’s an out in the open exchange of space for money that any reader can see for what it is, and judge accordingly. 

Supposedly the difference this time is that the ad is partly laid out to look like a newspaper article. Nonsense. (1) It’s plainly in a different typeface, so even a cursory look shows that it’s not a weird, purple-prose LA times article; (2) It reads “NBC advertisement” across the top; (3) it’s no different from advertorial copy that appears regularly in newspapers and magazines, the only difference here being the purely symbolic, and meaningless, one that it appears on the sanctum sanctorum of page A1.

But the biggest reason is one that should be obvious: the only way the ad works is if you recognize it as an ad. If you mistook it for an LA Times story, you would not connect it to the banner at the bottom of the page, and thus, you would not be directed to watch Southland on NBC. 

But what about the message to readers? The message to readers is that newspapers are selling advertising for money to stay in freaking business, which is precisely what they should be doing—rather than observing stuffy distinctions about what appears “proper” for newspapers to do. (Being more concerned about the appearance of propriety than actual propriety doesn’t make you more credible anyway.) As long as they do it in ways that are—as this ad is—transparent to their audience, it’s fine. [Update: as opposed to, for instance, the cockamamie notion of a government newspaper bailout.]

The only way that this instance would not be fine would be if one assumes that said audience is made up of morons. And if that’s what newspaper editors are assuming, they don’t deserve to stay in business.