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March 17 1999 6:11 PM

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To Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, the self-designated watchdog of journalistic ethics in our time, for crossing over the line from journalist to advertising copywriter for an industry he still covers as a journalist. Loeb is the author of a nine-page advertorial insert in Time this week titled "Straight Talk About Your Finances: Insights From Marshall Loeb." Loeb is in a good position to give financial advice--he's a former editor of Fortune and Money, the author of a popular book on investing, and the host of a daily financial advice show on CBS radio--but, one might say, poorly situated to do so: Here's a man who opines publicly on matters of journalistic morality taking money from financial companies he might one day write or speak about--as well as from a media company, Time Inc., that he ought to be covering in his magazine.

Should he have done it? Let's ask the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. In a 1997 interview with Stuart Elliott, the advertising reporter for the New York Times, Loeb declared: "If you are a journalist, you do not lend yourself to the promotion of any goods or services. It's a conflict of interest."

Culturebox called Loeb to see whether he would consider writing the advertorial one such conflict of interest. Loeb began by explaining that he prefers the term used in the magazine--"Special Advertising Feature." This is the third Special Advertising Feature he has participated in. For the first two, copy was merely excerpted from his book (he did "a little updating and so forth"). This one he wrote on commission. The features are put together by Time Inc.'s marketing division and sold to advertisers. (Advertisers in this week's section included Prudential, the Vanguard Group, and Franklin Templeton--all financial services companies.) "I'm paid by Time Inc.," says Loeb. "I do not know beforehand who the advertisers for this may be."

A conflict of interest? Not to Loeb. "I am writing journalistically in the pages of a magazine, a magazine for which I wrote and edited for many years that also has advertising in it," he says. "I am not lending myself to the promotion of any goods or services. I'm giving personal financial advice." But "writing journalistically," as least as Culturebox understands it, means feeling free to spit in the eye of the people you write about, if you so desire. What if he wished to say something negative in his Special Advertising Feature about a potential advertiser, or the financial services industry in general? That has never come up, he says, although "nobody told me what to write or not to write."

It's hard to believe that Loeb overlooked the possibility that signing his name to a Special Advertising Feature could damage his standing as a journalist, especially given his day job as journalistic ethics hound. But an explanation is at hand. Joseph Nocera, in his excellent history of the personal finance revolution, A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class (1994), hints that Loeb has always had an idiosyncratic view of journalism. During his tenure as editor of Money from 1980 to 1984, Nocera writes, the magazine became relentlessly upbeat, a cheerleader for stocks and bonds and other financial instruments and the companies that sold them: "The magazine ... contained 'an unseemly hype,' recalls [Robert] Runde [a Money employee at the time]. 'There was a lot of oversimplification' ... Another Money writer added: 'Writers used to grumble a lot about the magazine's avoidance of certain negative aspects of personal finance.' " When Nocera asked him about this, Loeb waved his colleagues' qualms away: "His in-house critics, [Loeb] believed, were acting the way journalists always acted; they were going out of their way to look for the dirt, to confirm their pessimistic worldview."

Those pesky journalists and their dour worldview! Maybe Loeb's Columbia Journalism Review will be able to do something about that attitude.

--Judith Shulevitz