Is the audience really THAT stupid?

Wayne Friedman writes today of the conflict of interest in “sponsored” newscasts. The target is MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The show is now sponsored by Starbucks, and even though there may not be a conflict of interest, Wayne writes that the appearance of one is just the same. The bind comes in if and when “Morning Joe” has to report about coffee.

Of course, any advertiser involvement in a news operation is a tricky affair. Keeping the lines clear between church and state — editorial and business — has always been an uneasy balancing act between editors and business executives. Local TV news reporters have done in-depth pieces about a less-than-scrupulous’ local automotive dealerships, and newscasts have paid the price with lost local automotive advertising business.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and my view has changed considerably. It’s a conflict of interest, because we say it is. We’ve supposed that the “wall” to which Wayne refers is necessary for us to remain “objective” in covering the news. There’s an honor, of sorts, in not breaching that wall, and so we never consider that the wall itself might be the problem in a news-as-a-profit-center paradigm. Moreover, we think that the (stupid) audience needs us to be pure, because we could easily pull the wool over their eyes.

You all know how I feel about objectivity, but here’s the thing: I don’t believe the audience of “Morning Joe” would sense or suspect a conflict of interest if a negative story about coffee did come up. But let’s take it even further. Let’s assume that the producers of the show felt an affinity to the people paying them, so they stayed away from the negative story about coffee. Think about this before you react, but in today’s world of thousands of news sources, what is really wrong with that? And wouldn’t people feel that the one place they could get the Starbucks’ “side” of the story would be “Morning Joe?”

If you assume that you are the ONLY source for news and that you have to market yourself as such, then the need for such purity is pretty obvious. But if you can bring yourself to accept that you don’t need to be the ONLY source for news, then the fundamentals of purity don’t matter as much. News is ubiquitous today, and that’s different than it was in the past, when the newspaper in the community was truly the only source of news and information for the people.

I fully realize this is heresy, but we need the courage to challenge the basic assumptions of journalism, ‘lest we find ourselves unable to support the practice any longer. Besides, I keep coming back to the reality that the audience just isn’t as stupid as we think they are and that transparency beats artificial objectivity any day of the week.


  1. Newspapers run ads for Starbucks, and will continue to long after they abandon pulp for pixels.

    It’s called transparency.

    Maybe Wayne needs to look it up.

  2. “…the audience just isn’t as stupid as we think they are…” Or, they’re so stupid as to be oblivious to these distinctions altogether. I had the prof in communications school (I think we all did) who pushed somebody’s original quote “never underestimate the intelligence of the viewing public”. My experience though, is that it’s pretty difficult to underestimate the intelligence of the viewing public, as reflected in ratings (and circulation numbers). I know this sounds cynical, but for God’s sake, half the population thinks “Oprah” is a news program.

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