Selling and Journalism

I’m sure there were at least a few journalists who took offense at  Gap marketing chief Seth Farbman telling an audience earlier this week that marketers are more honest than journalists. In his former life as a journalist, Farbman said, “I always had the sense that I was creating information, but the real purpose of that information was to sell something—to sell newspapers and ad space.”

There’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about this sentiment, and I might have let it pass if not for something I came across last night. I’ve been reading the autobiography of the late novelist Mark Harris, Best Father Ever Invented. In it, he writes about the elation he felt in 1948 when he left journalism to enter college:

How impossible that I was now to spend a day at labor which never asked for the quick hook to catch the reader, never asked, “Is it news? Is it what the public wants?” but in the actual reading of books, in the actual discussion of text, in the actual pursuit of thoughts and conclusions not predetermined by newspaper policy or the interests of the advertising department.

Journalism has always been about selling things. That doesn’t invalidate it as an activity, any more than it invalidates marketing. But it does mean that journalists must acknowledge that limitation if they wish to overcome it.