There's a debate in elite journalism over what's called "native advertising," which are basically ads that are formatted to look like news content. That raises the usual questions about ads masquerading as news–but what about when your "news" is hard to distinguish from paid advertising?
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple (11/20/13) has a fascinating look at this in the context of Politico's Playbook, a gossipy email blast of news and tidbits from Mike Allen. Wemple shows that it's damn near impossible to tell the difference between Allen's "journalism" about some of the site's sponsors–like the powerful Chamber of Commerce–and the paid messages from the Chamber itself that appear in Playbook. Wemple writes:
A review of Playbook archives shows that the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of Playbook.
So the Chamber and other powerful corporate interests like oil giant BP pony up to sponsor the Politico feature–and just so happen to get glowing coverage in the very same outlet.
Like BP and the Chamber, Goldman Sachs is a pivotal advertiser for Politico, routinely placing back-page ads in the print product and occasionally “presenting” Playbook. Differentiating between those ads and Allen’s blurbs can strain the eyes. Examples: Goldman Sachs fights child sex trafficking (January 23, 2013). Goldman Sachs to assist small businesses in Philadelphia (January 9, 2013). Goldman Sachs helps veterans (December 14, 2012). Goldman Sachs helps small businesses (June 12, 2012). Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award (August 13, 2012)! Puff piece on Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein (June 14, 2012).
This isn't the first time Allen's treatment of his advertisers has gotten some attention. In our Fear & Favor report earlier this year (2/13), FAIR noted:
Huffington Post's Michael Calderone (11/12/12), who noted that Politico’s chief White House correspondent Mike Allen wrote a piece promoting Fix the Debt for his Playbook feature on a Thursday (11/8/12). (It ends with an anonymous quote from "a Fix the Debt official" saying, "Learn more at www. FixTheDebt.org.") Wrote Calderone: "By Monday, the Campaign to Fix the Debt was sponsoring Playbook, with the email version of the morning newsletter describing Playbook as being 'presented' by the new initiative."
It's certainly a lucrative business that Politico is in, and it doesn't seem to affect Allen's status as an insider journalist. Among his many media appearances, he's regularly featured on the Friday night PBS program Charlie Rose: The Week–a journalist who does favors for corporate America appears on a high-profile perch on public television, hosted by another journalist with all sorts of corporate entanglements himself.