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Former editor criticizes ethics of LA Times advertorial

Former editor criticizes ethics of LA Times advertorial

T.L. Caswell, formerly of the Los Angeles Times editing staff and current writer for Truthdig, recently published an article criticizing the Times' decision to run a realistic looking advertorial on the July 1st edition of their LATExtra. The publication, which has won 39 Pulitzer prizes, has the fourth largest circulation in the United States. Caswell, holding the newspaper in high esteem, expresses his sentiment that the Times is "among the greatest dailies of modern time." He adds, however, that "now, the good times are gone and, some will argue, the good Times is gone."

Facing bankruptcy, the Times, like many other publications, must make changes in order to survive. Caswell notes that is spite of staff cutbacks and several other adjustments, such as the introduction of the LATExtra section, have not "cured the ills" of the paper.

After discussing his initial shock at the realistic advertorial, Caswell expresses his astonishment--and anger--at the Times advertisement. He writes: "simultaneously I felt a stinging embarrassment that in reading hastily, I, a veteran journalist, had been taken in, duped, by a publication that was an important part of my personal and work histories."

The fact that Caswell, who is clearly well versed in the world of journalism, fell for the Times' advertorial is tell-tale of not only of the advertorial's realism, but also of its ethical implications. If a journalist couldn't immediately recognize that the 4-page report was an ad, then how could the casual reader of the Times?

Times spokesmen have reasoned that the front page of the advertorial, which featured the word "advertisement" written in tiny red letters under the section heading, exonerates them from the blame of trying to dupe their readers. Yet, Caswell, commenting on the word, disagrees, saying "The 13 letters were so visually overwhelmed by the largeness of the other page elements that they did not stand out even though they were printed in red." Moreover, Caswell questions the content of the ad's article, asking "Did someone think these fake news articles--filled with massive property damage and implications of human death--were funny?"

While many other news sources, like The Onion or Truthdig's Andy Borowitz's fake news section, use exaggeration and satire to get a laugh, Caswell argues that this brand of news reporting has no place in a publication like the Times. Fake news, he writes, "doesn't make me smile when I see it in the pages of the L.A. Times, nor would I chuckle if I saw it in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post."

In response to the advertorial, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has called on the Times to stop using its advertising space for advertorials as they hurt the Times' credibility. The Times also ran a large front page ad for Disney's Alice in Wonderland last March. Caswell comments "We live in strange days when a county governing board has to lecture a newspaper on journalistic ethics!"

While current industry circumstances have necessitated publications to think outside the box, the ethics of journalism must be carefully maintained in spite of suffering revenue. As Caswell concludes, the fact that the Times ill-fated advertorial introduced the King Kong ride seems poetically apposite: "The newspaper's deliberate failures of ethics are releasing a monster that will destroy the newspaper faster and more surely than any industrywide financial decline."

Sources: Truthdig, Los Angeles Times



Carole Wurzelbacher


2010-07-06 12:43

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