In “The Business Nobody Knows” from “Our Master’s Voice,” James Rorty evaluates the relationship between advertising and commercialism as it was in 1934. As an ad-man during the 1920s, he was a successful copywriter and then became a critic of the communication business. Described as a radical, Rorty went so far as to say that “mass advertising perverts the integrity of the editor-reader relationship essential to the concept of democracy,” pointing to the period of rapid change after the Depression for this distortion.
Rorty’s comments remind me of my experiences as a journalist at a newspaper for seven years. While I feel the use of the verb “perverts” is a strong word to choose by Rorty, I do agree that the typical newspaper reader does not have a true understanding of the difference between editorial content and advertising space. From past conversations I’ve had with family and friends outside of the journalism industry, normal readers see the entire newspaper page as one entity – their eyes do not really distinguish between stories and ads. Journalists, however, see a distinct difference between where editorial content ends and ads begin.
In the modern days of pagination, the advertising department of the newspaper first lays out the ads on the pages, and then the pages are sent to designers on the editorial side. In almost all cases, the ads themselves are not visible to the designers – they just appear as numbered gray boxes with company names on them. Once the completed pages are printed, editors must then check to make sure the stories and headlines running next to the ads do not conflict or, on the other hand, complement in a way that doesn’t appear objective. One recent example of a conflict between ads and editorial content was with the Sandy Hook shooting. A newspaper in SouthCarolina ran an ad for a gun sale next to the story about Sandy Hook. As the editor stated in his apology, multiple editors worked on the page and no one noticed – probably because the ad itself was not visible on the computers, and it’s possible the newspaper didn’t list company names on the ads but instead just numbered them.
It is true even today that for the role of the newspaper publisher, the business is the “advertising business,” as Rorty stated. While a publisher’s “necessary concern is to make a maximum of profit,” the modern newspaper editor is more focused on the editorial content. Rorty believed the advertising doctrine is “always remembering that the separation of the editorial and advertising contents of a modern publication is for the most part formal rather than actual.” To me, even though today's advertising and editorial departments of a newspaper have very little interaction, I think Rorty would say that in today’s journalism industry, both departments’ leaders must work together with a common goal to sell newspapers and not offend readers, as observed with the Sandy Hook mistake.
Again using terms of the dramatic, Rorty also says that some ad men become “gray-faced cynics and are burned out at forty.” From my experience, cynical is definitely a true description of not only advertising professionals but also newspaper journalists. Rorty said this is from dealing with “half-truths” on a daily basis. I would say it’s more of a personality type for a journalist, to be curious and always investigating claims and wanting proof of them. At the same time, as Rorty brings up in his critiques, the publishers making the final decisions at the newspaper are the people with the vested interest in making a profit and may choose not to investigate stories they otherwise would if not in a position of power. As we’ve discussed in class, the gatekeeper theory does give one pause as to whether news organizations are really being as objective as they should be.