Letter: Union Leader publisher should pay heed to the wisdom of E.B. White

From DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Joe McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader, dismisses as “moronic” some of the criticisms of his going on a reporting trip with specific sponsors.

Whatever disregard he has for his subscribers and readers, perhaps McQuaid will pay heed to the wisdom of E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a newsroom staple.

In 1976 a company with an impeccable reputation, Xerox, paid $40,000 plus $15,000 in expenses to Harrison E. Salisbury, a journalist of impeccable reputation, to write a 23-page essay about our nation for Esquire magazine. Xerox had no role in editing the piece, it just book ended Salisbury’s eloquent words with its ads in what Time Magazine reported was planned as “the first Xerox special in print.”

White saw the ethical dangers this posed and at age 76 sprung to his typewriter, writing eloquently about the reasons that such arrangements are indefensible, a looming disaster for freedom of the press, something the Union Leader has always stood for.

White saw the “shadow of disaster” in the arrangement and mused about whether Gulden’s Mustard would soon sponsor a piece by food critic Craig Claiborne headlined “The Place of the Hot Dog in American Society.”

There are some excellent and brief accounts of this important chapter in journalism ethics that McQuaid, especially, ought to acquaint himself with and then reflect on until his conscience and his sense of propriety catches up with his flippant comment about how cheap he is.

In “E. B. White Takes On Xerox and Wins” Lucinda Franks recounted how the Xerox-Esquire-Salisbury arrangement did not spread and infect journalism because of a piece White sent to a small Maine newspaper he loved, The Ellsworth American.

The chief publicist at Xerox, W. B. Jones, at first defended the arrangement, but after an exchange of letters with White, Jones and other Xerox executives concluded that the arrangement should not be repeated.

From Franks’ 1976 article:

Mr. Jones wrote that as “a long-time admirer of your work” and as one of the instigators of the Esquire arrangement, he had read Mr. White’s letter with “some dismay.”

He explained that Xerox had viewed the sponsorship as an extension of its backing of television programs, which “. . .were never about our business in any way; in some cases they were so controversial that customers tossed out their Xerox machines.”

He added that he saw no problem with the company’s sponsorship, provided it was open and identified; the writer was paid before the piece appeared; the writer understood that it was a single assignment and that he would get no others no matter what Xerox thought of the article, and that the magazine retained full editorial control of the project.

Mr. White wrote back that he still saw something ominous in it all: “. . .It was as though Esquire had gone on relief, was accepting its first welfare payment, and was not its own man any more.” He continued:

“Whatever money changes hands, something goes along with it–an intangible something that varies with the circumstances. It would be hard to resist the suspicion that Esquire feels indebted to Xerox, that Mr. Salisbury feels indebted to both, and that the ownership or sovereignty of Esquire has been nibbled all around the edges.”

Mr. White wrote that sponsorship in the press was an invitation to corruption and abuse. “A funded article is a tempting morsel for any publication–particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet,” he wrote. “A funded assignment is a tempting dish for a writer, who may pocket a much larger fee than he is accustomed to getting.”

“And sponsorship is attractive to the sponsor himself, who, for one reason or another, feels an urge to penetrate the editorial columns after being so long pent up in the advertising pages,” he added. “Buying and selling space in news columns could become a serious disease of the press. If it reached epidemic proportions, it could destroy the press.

“I don’t want I.B.M. or the National Rifle Association providing me with a funded spectacular when I open my paper. I want to read what the editor and publisher have managed to dig up on their own–and paid for out of the till.”

Mr. White wrote that his strong feelings about freedom of the press came from his first encounters 50 years ago with Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker.

“He was having a tough time finding money to keep his floundering little sheet alive, yet he was determined that neither money nor influence would ever corrupt his dream or deflower his text,” Mr. White wrote.

“The faintest suggestion of the shadow of advertising in his news or editorial columns would cause him to erupt. He would explode in anger, the building would reverberate with his wrath, and his terrible swift sword would go flashing up and down the corridors.

“For a young man, it was an impressive sight and a memorable one. Fifty years have not dimmed for me either the spectacle of Ross’s ferocity or my own early convictions–which were identical with his.” Mr. Jones wrote back two short replies to Mr. White’s long letter. In the first, he thanked him for “telling me what I didn’t want to hear” and in the second, he said Xerox had decided to abandon two planned similar projects with other magazines and writers, the names of which the company would not disclose.

“Your correspondence was a primary factor in our reconsideration and we do appreciate your help in reaching what I am convinced is the right decision.”

White got it right. Will McQuaid?

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