Celebrex, Nexium, Prevacid.

Why are the big drug companies advertising on network television? In many instances, they don’t tell you what ailment the drug is supposed to help, and you can’t get it without a prescription anyway. One of the hosts on the new, “liberal” radio network, Air America, offered a theory last week (I think it was Randi Rhodes).

If Pfizer or Eli Lilly is spending millions with your network, you’ll be less likely to report negative stories about them. The purpose of the ads is not to move product, they’ve got that covered. It’s to keep a leash on the news departments. I’ve been thinking about that for days, asking myself if it could really work. Of course it could. It has. It does.

Then I asked myself if it could happen at our company. We operate several radio news networks and during my 20 years with the company, there have been several instances where a big advertiser threatened to pull business if we didn’t lay off or change a story. The owner of our company, who started as a reporter, didn’t hesitate. Advertisers don’t control editorial content. That happens in the newsroom. Period. Everybody back to work. It still gives me goose bumps to recall those very brief meetings in the corner office.

But the last few years have been a little tougher for our news networks and some of the players have changed. Would we take the same ethical/expensive stand today? Or would we try to find a way to “keep the business?” Search for a compromise. Would our news directors risk their jobs for this kind of journalistic principle? They’ve got house payments. What would I do?

It saddens me that I even wonder about these things. Ten years ago I could have said, with absolute certainty, we would tell the advertiser we would not, could not, be pressured. We’d stand by the story and live with the consequences. And it might still be true today. I hope so.

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