Art & Commerce: Absence of Malice

Alison Fahey, Editor
A few weeks ago, I wrote a fairly hard-hitting column about a certain agency in the news. While more than a few readers called to say they thought the analysis was on target, the agency felt it was unfairly represented.
When an agency feels wronged, we eventually get asked the question that insults any reputable journalist: “What did we do to you to deserve that?” This accusation implies that there are motives other than delivering quality journalism–and that malice is part of the equation.
I’m sure you all realize that what motivates most news reporters is the same: Get the big story and get it first. But what you sometimes forget, or chose to dismiss, is that exclusivity does not come at the expense of accuracy. Ever.
Breaking a story that isn’t true isn’t just a wash, it’s a giant step back, and it jeopardizes credibility. Most of us have pretty healthy egos, since our most valued asset is our byline, not our paycheck. So we protect it at all cost.
Do we ever make mistakes? Yes. And we will own up to them–quickly and publicly.
Now, columns differ from news because they have a point of view; but the same principles apply. They must be insightful, fair and balanced, otherwise, they’re worthless.
Are there reporters out there who skimp on facts? Who are just plain lazy? Sure. But not all journalists are reckless, just like not all ad folks are hucksters.
If you don’t believe me, don’t bother reading more. You’re a hopeless case who will never be satisfied with anything less than a big wet kiss of a profile describing just how brilliant you really are.
For the rest, here’s some answers to other commonly asked questions.
Why do people talk to us at all?
For the same three reasons we talk to you. Because you have information we need. You are fairly amusing or interesting, or you’re just too damn good to ignore.
Who are these anonymous sources you quote?
Most likely, it’s your boss or his or her boss. They are always people close to the situation, ones who have direct knowledge of the subject but are not supposed to share confidential information. Guess what? Sometimes, it’s your client who doesn’t have the nerve to tell you to your face that you’re about to be fired. Obviously, we judge all information on the quality of our source. For example, certain information from what we call a DFE (disgruntled former employee) is suspect and weighed carefully to determine the potential motivation.
Will we punish you if you lie?
This is a ridiculously insulting question. No, we do not exact revenge in the pages of Adweek (for reasons explained earlier); your bad behavior will not change how we cover you or your agency. But if we catch you blatantly lying time after time, don’t expect your word to mean much to us. And don’t expect many favors.
I got particularly sick of one pathological CEO and refuse to speak to him to this day. Still, his agency enjoyed glowing headlines for months while it was on a new business streak. But when he inadvertently emailed me an internal memo, I was less inclined to bury it than I might have for someone else.
One final word of advice:
Grow up. We all know this business is cyclical; an agency can be the hottest shop in town one week and on its deathbed the next. There will be good news, and there will be bad news. Hopefully, we’ll be there to document both.
Remember: If you are good enough or interesting enough or just plain big enough to warrant constant attention, I’d bet we lent a helping hand somewhere along the way.
So keep those positive headlines in mind the next time you feel we’re picking on you. K