An expensive but worthy message about journalism

06 Feb 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
An expensive but worthy message about journalism

In reaching millions of people around the world and reminding them of the high cost of a free press, The Washington Post has taken a very necessary action, writes Raymond Snoddy

By any standards the Super Bowl is an advertising phenomenon without parallel anywhere in the world.

This year’s audience was low, mainly because of internal disputes rumbling around the world of American football.

For low read only 100 million.

For CBS this year’s broadcaster – coverage alternates between the three main rights holders including Fox and NBC - it’s a matter of sitting back and counting the money with 30-second slots pulling in $5 million.

It’s one of the last bastions of the big TV spot ad occasion, although in recent years the television impact has been hugely amplified by social media.

Why in recent years the social media giants have even felt the need to join the queue and advertise on television themselves, something that had previously been beneath their dignity. Actually having to pay to get on to television for a few seconds when they have so much “free” inventory of their own was a new insight.

Sometimes Super Bowl ads are about commerce – think beer, soft drinks and snacks. More often they are about prestige and corporate impact without much connection with immediate ROI.

More rarely the money is spent to make a point.

Was this ever more true than the decision by the Washington Post to run a 60 second ad devoted to the dangers and deaths suffered by journalists around the world – a decision that proved to be curiously controversial in unexpected quarters.

Narrated by Tom Hanks the copy line went: “When we go off to war, when we exercise our rights, when we soar to our greatest heights there is someone to gather the facts, to bring you the facts, no matter the cost. Because knowing empowers us. Knowing helps us decide. Knowing keeps us free.”

Unsurprisingly the ad featured Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist murdered and dismembered in Istanbul by Saudi Arabia, and Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times correspondent killed in Syria in 2012, deliberately targeted, it is now believed, by the Syrian regime.

The ad concluded with the Post’s regular slogan – “democracy dies in darkness.”

What did it cost? The Post isn’t saying, although it could have been as much as $10 million, although it is more likely that the paper got a late cancellation deal.

But it certainly must have cost millions of dollars and was a splendid gesture to highlight what most of us take for granted: the high cost too often paid by journalists who go to war, or other dangerous places unarmed and increasingly deliberately attacked.

One of the most chilling facts last year was the drop in the number of journalists killed in Yemen.

This was not because Yemen under Saudi bombardment had become safer but because the place had simply become too dangerous for all but the most seriously brave, or foolhardy to visit.

As a result the sufferings of the Yemenis is a story that has been under-reported.

Elsewhere deaths and imprisonments of journalists have been on the rise and retaliation killings nearly doubled last year, according to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The organisation found that the number of journalists involved in retaliation killings rose from 18 to 34 with overall deaths up from 47 to 53. The total could even be higher because those are only the documented deaths.

Afghanistan is the most deadly place in the world for journalists, although the US made it into the top five for danger, mainly because of the deaths when a gunman opened fire in the offices of the Maryland Capital Gazette. The murderer, who killed four journalists and a sales assistant, was apparently motivated by losing a defamation case against the paper.

It being America, the easy availability of guns is usually a factor in mass shootings, and the safety of journalists has hardly been enhanced by President Trump repeatedly calling them “Enemies of the People".

Rather predictably Donald Trump Jr had an authentic Trumpian response to the Washington Post Super Bowl ad.

“You know how MSM journalists could avoid having to spend millions on a Super Bowl commercial to gain some undeserved credibility? How about report the news and not their leftist BS for a change.”

Proof positive, if any is required, that gracelessness and totally missing the point are inherited characteristics.

Yet in the most surprising twist to this particular tale, some Washington Post journalists were also opposed to the grand Super Bowl gesture and found themselves aligned with Donald Trump Jr, though from a different perspective.

Their argument went: spend the money in the newsroom rather than on grand gestures and with even more precision, unfreeze pensions and improve maternity benefits.

Poynters, the American news research institute, raised an eyebrow and observed: “Odd how it all turned out. Standing up for journalism with a powerful ad was great PR for the Post. Except in its own newsroom.”

As the Post publisher Fred Ryan noted in a memo to staff before the ad appeared, the newspaper felt it was the right moment at the right venue “to present this important message to the large audience of Americans and international viewers.”

With a President of the US running around calling journalists 'Enemies of the People' Ryan is surely right and for Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of the Post, who simply gets richer and richer, the statement will probably have been worth every cent.

And without pushing the analogy too far, those brought up on hard benches and long sermons will recognise a religious parable.

A woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oils was criticised for her action. The oil could have been sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor.

Jesus replied that the woman had done a beautiful thing and that the poor will always be with us.

There will always be pension freezes and a need to improve maternity benefits in the contemporary newspaper business.

The Washington Post has done a beautiful and necessary thing in reaching perhaps several hundred million around the world and reminding them, at least for 60 seconds, the high cost of a free press.

Who knows, the Washington Post may also win new subscribers - though that was not the purpose of a remarkable Super Bowl ad.

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