The Atlantic magazine has stumbled badly on that really hard multiple choice question at the end of the Journalism 101 final exam: "Lying to your readers is: 1) A good thing, or 2) A bad thing." One pictures them hunched over the bubble sheet, eyes squinted closed and pencil tips to their tongues, beating themselves up inside for not having memorized that one.
The Atlantic yesterday killed a fake paid-for story on its web page under the headline, "David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year." In terms of who might have paid for a fake story like that, I will leave the sleuthing to you, dear Watson, but it's a group whose name rhymes with "clientology," also not a real word.
It was a bought ad, made to look like a news report. On next year's exam, I propose that journalism departments also include a new question: "A happy-news story in a 155-year-old publication founded by a collective of New England intellectuals about how great Scientology is doing will strike many loyal readers as: 1) Not fishy at all, or 2) Pretty fishy.
In a cloyingly folksy mea culpa, Atlantic told readers, "We screwed up" and promised to go back to its study carrel "until we figure all of this out." But even after the fake story was pulled, after the apology issued and the big figuring it out began, it seemed to take some additional probing by The New York Times to flesh out the full nature of the fakery.
The story, type-faced and page-designed to give an impression of virginity, had some kind of little "sponsored content" widget over it, the equivalent of a 19th century bride clutching a pink hankie in one fist so she could tell the groom later, "I didn't wear ALL white." But the deception ran far deeper than even the widget could have conveyed.
According to the Times, all of the comments below the story were very sunnily pro-Scientiology. How odd. On these journalistic plains, not one discouraging word was heard? Oh, well, it seems on further reflection The Atlantic was able to think of a possible reason for that. The comments section, usually monitored by the magazine's editorial staff, was in this particular instance monitored instead by the ad sales people who had sold the fake story idea to Scientology in the first place.
I could be wrong, but I do think it's reasonable in this instance to interpret the term, "monitored," as meaning "written." If that's unfair, well, I screwed up.
Here is what scares me. As far as I know, The Atlantic is not a failing publication. It's not on the ropes begging for nickels and dimes to keep plywood out of its windows. In fact the last time I read about it, about a year ago, The Atlantic was being touted as a model of web success, leading the way to digital sales salvation in a magazine world battered by diminished print ad sales.
I am left perplexed. My own career in print has familiarized me with the Final Days syndrome, which I experienced in the daily newspaper trade. The publication business, after all, is a business, and in any business going through its final days when the wolf has got one paw and half a snout through the back door already, everything is for sale, with very deep discounts on integrity. If one is still around during those dark times, one tries not to look appetizing.
But for all I can discover, The Atlantic is going and blowing, selling the hell out of its web products and sucking in strong readership by publishing great reader-jarring counter-intuitive stories like the one last July about feminist career women being bad mommies.
So why the fibski? Lying to the readers may be a time-honored practice, but you're only supposed to do it, I thought, when you're already mostly dead. Doing it when you're still successful seems like biting people before you're a zombie -- just not done.
Ah, but if we sort back through things carefully, we do see some signs and portents. In June 2011, for example, The Atlantic was proudly touting a joint venture with Mercedes, the car company, on something called an Ideas Special Report, based on a conference sponsored by Mercedes at a ski resort. The concept was that you were going to have The Atlantic, a then 154-year-old publication founded by a collective of New England intellectuals, bonded at the hip with an auto company which was described by the magazine as is "an organization that values the exploration and proliferation of ideas that move society forward."
It was an interesting collaboration. We do know, for example, that Mercedes is also well known for ideas that move society in reverse, or, when desirable, ideas that allow society to park. But why would a magazine founded by intellectuals need the car company's help reporting on other ideas, unless ... unless ... oh, look! Without even realizing what I was doing, I was sitting here at my keyboard doing that thing where you rub your thumb and long finger together in the universal gesture for lucre.
The take-away here, probably, is that I'm wrong and my personal experience, once again, a poor guide. Publications do not only lie when they are desperate. In fact success itself may engender a kind of giddy greed that breeds upon itself leading to naughtiness and failed final exams.
You know, I'm probably not supposed to mention it, but we went through a tough phase here at this company when people like The New York Times and other gentry of the media world were beating up on us pretty bad for publishing what they considered too many naughty ads. Our company was even split up recently to cleanse us of that issue, none of which had anything to do with me in my own humble station.
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But I always thought this about that: I'd rather have hookers for advertisers than have to be a hooker myself. Call me old-fashioned. Obviously I'm way too square for The Atlantic.
It seems very possible to me that this kind of issue is only interesting to journalists and even then to journalists of a certain age. My own 20-something defiantly non-journalist son seems to fly around the web-o-sphere constantly scarfing up bits and pieces of this and that from websites he barely bothers to identify. I asked him once how he ever knows what's true.
I can't quote him exactly, but it was something to the effect that he starts with an assumption that it's all totally and equally paid-for and sold-out dis-informational bullshit, but that if you fly around fast enough, look at enough of it and weigh it all against itself, you develop a kind of gut radar for the bread-crumbs of truth accidentally or deliberately strewn through the Great Forest of Lies.
I can even start to like that idea. But then I always stop short, because I think, "How would we put that on the final exam?"