Fortifying the Firewall

May 24, 2005

BP, the giant oil company, has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for bad news. Ad Age reports today that BP has informed print publications that its ads must be removed from any edition containing “objectionable editorial coverage.”

According to Ad Age, BP wants advance notification “of any news text or visuals that directly mention the company, a competitor or the oil-and-energy industry.”

BP’s action comes on the heels of a similar decision last week by Morgan Stanley, which also has said it will pull ads if negative stories about the beleaguered financial services provider are set to appear.

Last month, General Motors went a step further and pulled all its corporate ads from the Los Angeles Times to protest an April 6 column by the Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning auto writer Dan Neil in which Neil blamed GM’s troubles on its management and called for them to be fired. GM was reportedly spending $10 million a year to promote its cars in the Times. One would think the troubled automaker would have more to worry about than Dan Neil’s column, but apparently not. So far the Times has not caved, and it seems safe to say that it won’t as long as the current editors are in the saddle.

But in a way, the decisions of BP and Morgan Stanley are more brazen than GM’s. After all, GM acted after the objectionable column was published — as it has every right to. BP and Morgan Stanley, however, are using the threat of withdrawn ads (and withdrawn ad revenue) as thinly-veiled efforts to dictate editorial content — in advance.

In response to Morgan Stanley’s decision, Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliott House told Ad Age’s Jon Fine that the pre-emptive threats won’t work. “It would not be a practical condition at The Wall Street Journal,” said House. “The ad department has no knowledge of what stories are running in the next morning’s newspaper.”

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it’s reassuring to know that the firewall that separates the business and news operations at the Journal is inviolate, and that reporters don’t have ad salesmen looking over their shoulders. But that may not be the case at other publications, especially those in more dire financial straits who find themselves threatened with the carrot-and-stick of ad revenue offered and ad revenue withdrawn.

BP’s policy harkens back to a 1997 demand by Chrysler Group that magazine sales staffs warn the automaker of potential “offensive” or “provocative” articles. The policy was abandoned after several months, Ad Age reports, when the Magazine Publishers of America and the American Society of Magazine Editors took “the unusual step of issuing a joint policy on the topic of editorial integrity that bars magazines from giving advertisers a sneak peek at stories, photos or tables of contents for upcoming issues.”

Maybe it’s time for those two organizations — plus editors and publishers of newspapers as well — to step to the plate and explain once again to advertisers (and to their readers) why it’s important to keep church separate from state.

–Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.