Church vs. State
By Larry Martz
One of the best features of the magazine in the glory days was the genuine separation of church and state—the total independence of Newsweek’s editorial content from the views of Newsweek subscribers and advertisers. Here’s a story to point that up:
It was 1971 or '72 (I don't have the clips, and some of the details of what follows may have blurred in memory). I was Newsweek's business editor. The first wave of general concern over the environment was cresting, and many big companies had leaped on board with a spate of advertising proclaiming their deep commitment to improving the planet.
The only hitch was that much of what the ads said was fiction. Several bureaus sent in advisories pointing this out, and I ordered up a round of exploratory reporting. When it checked out, I planned what we then called a Spotlight on Business, an oversize story of six to nine columns on a subject of more than usual interest.
Fire Away: I never cleared this project with any of the Wallendas [Newsweek’s top editors], and never even checked whether any of our target companies was a Newsweek advertiser. In those days, we just took it for granted that we were licensed to report anything. And we hit
One mining company had run an ad with a gorgeous photo of a pristine lake, with greenery in the background and a kid in the foreground holding up a fish he had apparently just caught with the makeshift fishing pole in his hand. The headline announced that this lake used to be a strip mine, but it had been lovingly restored by the mining company because of its devotion to nature. The photo we ran had a wider field, and on each side of the central lushness was a swath of barren earth and devastation. The reporting said that the water in the lake was far too acid to sustain any fish.
Smells Suspicious: A second company, a utility, ran an ad showing a scuba diver holding up a fine lobster. The copy boasted that this lobster had been caught 100 feet from the company's main ocean discharge pipe. Our reporter found the market where the lobster had been bought.
A third ad showed a neat modern building with a sign labeling it as the company's environmental research unit. We showed it from the other side with its true identity, a local library.
The story triggered more than the usual number of readers' letters, most of them indignant. It also caused a great many Newsweek advertisers to cancel, or threaten to cancel, their campaigns. Gib McCabe, Newsweek's publisher in those days, set out on what he said was a 15,000-mile pilgrimage around the country to pacify them.
Tough Truth: McCabe never gave me more trouble than a rueful grimace over the story, and before he left he told me what he was going to say: that companies that advertised in Newsweek could only benefit from the credibility of a magazine that wasn't afraid to tell the truth. It worked. If memory serves, when he came back he had salvaged all but two of the angry advertisers.
Nobody on the editorial side gave me any flak, either. It may be a token of our indifference to business-side pressure that I don't even remember whether any of the three ads we targeted had appeared in Newsweek. Not long afterward, the Wallendas made me national affairs editor, and I stayed there all through the Watergate story.
Call me a cynic, but somehow I doubt that it would have played out that way in recent years.
Larry Martz joined Newsweek as a writer in business in 1961, became senior editor of the business section in 1969, served as national affairs editor between 1972 and 1975, and was assistant managing editor and then editor of Newsweek International between 1975 and 1985. He was an editor at large until he left the magazine in 1993.