Jon Ham on Agenda Journalism

Betsy Newmark pointed me to this excellent column by Jon Ham on the way journalism has changed, and not for the better. Actually Jon uses the term “advocacy” journalism rather than “agenda” journalism. I think both are appropriate.

In my first journalism course in 1971 we were given an example of what makes journalism superior to advertising. It involved a Shell Oil commercial that ran in the late-’60s and early-’70s touting an additive called Platformate.

The commercial showed two cars on a straight desert road, one fueled with Shell gas containing the wonder additive Platformate and the other topped up with gas without Platformate. Not surprisingly, the car without the Shell gasoline sputtered to a stop in the hot sun while the Shell car kept going a considerable time longer.

The announcer told us that this was proof that Shell with Platformate was a superior auto fuel to gasoline without Platformate. All of this was perfectly true, in a sense that decades later would be called “parsed” and “Clintonian.” What the ad did not tell you was that all commercial gasolines contained Platformate, and without it your mileage will plummet.

The impression left with the consumer was clear: Use Shell with Platformate instead of those other brands without Platformate if you wanted good gas mileage. As my professor at the University of Georgia, Beverly Bethune, told us, this kind of subterfuge was what made journalism noble compared to the advertising game. Journalism, we were told, would never leave out meaningful context in an effort to mislead readers. It was concerned with truth, not case-making.

This was probably true 35 years ago. But even then something new called “advocacy journalism” was on the horizon. It was considered “alternative” and not quite responsible journalism back then. Unfortunately, it is today the norm among mainstream reporters. It borrows many techniques from advertising, among them the squelching of facts that don’t fit an agenda-driven template.Amen, Jon. Please read the entire excellent column. (By the way, Betsy and Jon both live in North Carolina like me. I am so lucky.)

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