“The Same and Not the Same” is the title of a fantastic book by Nobel Prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman. It’s a great place to get a hearty dose of science + culture. Part Eight of the book is titled “Value, Harm, and Democracy” and has all sorts of interesting stuff in it on chemistry and industry, environmental concerns, chemistry, education & democracy. It does not have a section on what to do when you are running a media empire and your advertisers want you to censor your writers because they are still feeling a bit touchy over that whole messy Bhopal business, but you can’t cover everything in one book.
I have been extremely sad the past few days as I watch the Seed/ScienceBlogs Pepsigeddon nightmare unfold before me. Being part of ScienceBlogs has been extremely important to me, and something I’ve always been proud to claim affiliation with.
In my last post, I sought to draw an analogy between what I thought I saw happening with the now defunct, ill-fated PepsiCo blogvertorial at ScienceBlogs, and the previous struggles Ms. went through in the days it accepted advertising. Feminism and science are uneasy bedfellows at best, but they have this in common: most citizens are ignorant or ill-informed at best about them; are subjected to vast amounts of dis- and mis-information through highly effective marketing and propaganda machines that are better funded that the authoritative sources; and don’t always know where to go look when they do decide they want some reliable information on the topic. In addition, they are not the kinds of topics that advertisers flock to in droves. So funding a witty, attractive, meaningful, public-serving, truth-telling enterprise devoted to either subject is a daunting enterprise.
That’s what’s the same.
Here’s what’s not the same between the editors of Ms. and whatever passes for editorial ethics and guidance at Seed:
It’s been almost three years away from life between the grindstones of advertising pressures and readers’ needs. I’m just beginning to realize how edges got smoothed down–in spite of all our resistance. I remember feeling put upon when I changed “Porsche” to “car” in a piece about Nazi imagery in German pornography by Andrea Dworkin–feeling sure Andrea would understand that Volkswagen, the distributor of Porsche and one of our few supportive advertisers, asked only to be far away from Nazi subjects. It’s taken me all this time to realize the Andrea was the one with a right to feel put upon. Even as I write this, I get a call from a writer of Elle, who is doing a whole article on where women part their hair. Why, she wants to know, do I part mine in the middle? It’s all so familiar. A writer trying to make something of a nothing assignment; an editor laboring to think of new ways to attract ads: readers assuming that other women must want this ridiculous stuff; more women suffering from lack of information, insight, creativity, and laughter that could be on the these same pages.
I ask you: Can’t we do better than this?
We’re not running the bhopal piece, and we’re passing on the Maldive shark ban (a bit late now… Too bad it got caught up in prod week… ). As for Bhopal, it’s a cautionary call on our part as we’re in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed’s photography in their own brand campaigns). RE: the payment, as you’re on a scheduled direct-payment, the bhopal fee covers the Kerry/Carbon trading news piece fee that was outstanding. Let me know if that’s clear.
It’s clear that twenty years later, we really can’t do any better. We’re not just agonizing over toning down a word choice, we’re killing whole articles so that Dow doesn’t get its fee-fees hurt over that whole regrettable Bhopal thingy. Not because we already have an advertiser we don’t want to lose, but one we hope to gain. We’re shutting our mouths before anyone has even asked us to.
Read that Ms. editorial, and see what they went through, what their willingness to speak out cost them in terms of advertising dollars, the contortions they went through to hang on to the few advertisers they were able to coax to the table. Adam Bly, you really couldn’t have tried even half as hard as Gloria Steinem? Really?
Zuskateers, I believe this is my last straw. I’m leaving tomorrow for a week with Z-Mom, and there is supposed to be a conference call this week that will mollify all my concerns. I am ruminating, and will make an announcement when I am back from time with mom about my plans for the future.
UPDATE: response here and comments that follow.