Newspapers Make a Killing Selling Obama ‘Trinkets’ — Ethically Wrong?

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By: Ron Martz

The media like to portray themselves as paragons of ethical virtue, above reproach or scrutiny by the public or any outside agency. They spend much of their time looking into the houses of those they suspect of wrongdoing, but little time examining of their own shortcomings.

Ombudsmen and reader advocates who are supposed to examine individual media organizations rarely do an adequate job because more often than not they are employed by the very companies whose dealings they are supposed to scrutinize. Who is going to take a chance on making the boss angry and being relegated to a dead-end job, or being jobless, at a time when so many journalists are out of work?

Most media organizations have page and pages of ethical guidelines that reporters and editors are supposed to follow or risk being fired. A strict ban on benefiting financially from the outcome of any story is one of the primary tenets of those guidelines. The intent is to prevent not only a conflict of interest, but any hint of impropriety in the objectivity and fairness of stories that are written about a particular subject. Stories slanted in one direction or another that end up being financially beneficial to the reporter or the parent company are without a doubt among the more serious violations of media ethics.

Yet that is exactly what happened in this election and what has been happening ever since. The reason is simply this: money.

In an era of declining media revenues, loss of newspaper circulation and falling viewership among local TV newscasts, the media will do virtually anything to make a few bucks, even if it means selling their ethical souls.

That first became clear during the run-up to the election, when the media became cheerleaders for Barack Obama. The New York Times was the most blatant of the pro-Obama media crowd, eschewing any hint of objectivity or fairness in its coverage.

But in the weeks following the election, one reason the media wanted Obama to win so badly is that it would be easier to make money off him than John McCain.

As Andrew Malcolm first reported in his blog in the Los Angeles Times, the media are making a financial killing off Obama merchandise. In little more than two weeks, the LA Times raked in $686,000 in sales of cheap Obama trinkets.

A quick stroll through the L.A. Times web site reveals a nice selection of Obamania gear. You can get everything from a $7 newspaper to a $14.50 commemorative mug to a $12.95 T-shirt to a $32 “authentic front page aluminum printing plate.”

The Washington Post is offering a “Commemorative Edition Paper” for $9.95, an Obama tote bag for $18.99, a toddler T-shirt (in three different colors) for $15.99, a hoodie for $32.99, and the ubiquitous front-page coffee mug for $15.99. Sixteen bucks for a coffee mug?! Please.

My former employer, the Southern cheerleader-in-chief-for-Obama Atlanta Journal-Constitution is offering everything from a 8.5-inch by 11 inch archival paper for $12.95 to a framed 18×24 archival paper for $229.95. No coffee mugs yet, at least that I could find.

Obama’s hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, has been a bit more restrained so far, offering primarily framed front pages for various prices and a book for $14.95.

The worst ethical miscreant has been The New York Times, which among the media was the leader of the pro-Obama, anti-McCain coverage. Just check out the profiles it did on Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama and you’ll get a hint of what I am talking about.

There is no word from the N.Y. Times on how much it has benefited financially from the sale of Obama trinkets. But they’ve got a slew of the stuff, most of it more expensive than that of their media counterparts, and their wholesale hucksterism would make any midway Carny proud.

Let’s start with an edition of the Nov. 5 New York Times. It goes for $14.95. Of course, that may be as a result of the “resealable plastic bag” that it comes in. Then there are the framed and unframed front page reprints ranging from $49.95 to $275.99. You can get a reprint of the front page “with brass plate” for just $299. There are also a number of artsy-fartsy photos, framed and unframed, from $199-$799. And, of course, the front-page coffee mug. It’s $24.95.

All this would be humorous if it were not so sad. It is one thing for private entrepreneurs to get into the business of making a buck off Obama. More power to them. But the media, who have set standards for others, now refuse to live by their own standards.

By being little more than carnival hucksters, the media not only have cheapened their own industry, they have cheapened the office of the president. As it is in so many businesses, money – not ethics, not objectivity, not balance – is the bottom line for the media.

We will all be the worse because of it.

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