Note: I’ve recently become a fan of the blog Stuff Journalists Like, a different twist on the style of blog started by Stuff White People Like. I submitted the following piece to them, and after more than a week of complete radio silence (during which they posted several other items), I inquired and got a polite response that they didn’t think it fit their vibe. So, I inflict it on you here:
#66: The Chinese Wall
“The Chinese Wall” is a construct by which journalists have long convinced themselves (and only themselves) that they are immune to the vagaries of advertising and corporate management. Referring to the Great Wall of China, it gives a sense of complete separation with the added bonus of sounding vaguely culturally insensitive when uttered in the patois of a crusty Lou Grant figure. It also avoids the even more problematic and provincial “church and state” analogy also used to describe the same phenomenon.
The Chinese Wall’s roots are perfectly admirable: One can imagine a craven sepia-toned duo: publisher and sales manager (identifiable by their well-pressed suits and their higher-grade liquor proudly displayed in a case rather than hidden in a desk drawer). They are laughing gleefully as they dispatch a hapless reporter in a cheap fedora to pen a glowing feature on a full-page advertiser — or even worse, to sharpen a hatchet for a business foolish enough to cancel its campaign.
But over time, the Wall that sheltered us may have been the ultimate implement of self-destruction. Can you name one viable industry in which the creators of product claim complete isolation from its sellers and owners?
Even worse, the Wall has been compromised over time, but with the chinks only open in one direction. Morning news anchors bounce between hard news and paid features on the latest fashions at the local mall. Editorial boards take positions that serendipitously happen to sync up with the real estate interests of their owners. We spend time covering reality shows, but only those that air on the network with which our station is affiliated. “Sponsored sections” make for splinters of daylight in the wall’s shadow.
A pragmatist could live with these compromises if they were reciprocal, but unfortunately journalists don’t have the same avaricious appetite as the money guys do for crossing the DMZ, so an industry in a long-term decline hastened by technological disruption and bad economic timing has been deprived of the informed counsel of some of its brightest, most inquisitive minds — minds that can parse through volumes of arcane government documents to produce an award-winning expose’, but that hadn’t been troubled to understand, much less re-imagine, the basic underpinnings of the business model responsible for paying their way.
So the Chinese Wall provided a false sense of protection and comfort, keeping the stench of money out of the newsroom, but also keeping the newsroom out of the boardroom. It meant that we could defend our junkets from the beancounters as essential fuel for democracy. It meant that our meetings on how to save the business were entirely separate from the meetings held simultaneously on the other side of the wall. As the business faltered we could bask in our innocence, beaming over the awards we continued to win as the ship sank. Surely this wasn’t our fault, and those responsible for sacking those responsible would be sacked. But that wasn’t our problem, as it was the job of “the business side of the house” to find a way to sell whatever we served up.
Unfortunately, in the end, the Wall provides a clear demarkation for fingerpointing as the Mongol hordes bypass our defenses by parachuting in from the ether.
The PR / advertising disconnect
I know I tend to spend all my rant power on broken media models, but I’ve…