virus: Fwd: Critics foam over writer's beer ad

Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Thu, 3 Jun 1999 15:58:03 -0400

Personally I thought this particular ad was damn clever, and showed up SI for exactly what it was doing.

But there are some very interesting memetic angles herein as well....


Critics foam over writer's beer ad

SI's Reilly sees no conflict shilling for suds

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 06/03/99

Think of it as Beauty and the Beast sell beer. In a bit of awkward byplay sponsored by Miller Lite, middle-aged Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly spars with stunning supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos over what men really want in a sports magazine: sharp writing or fishnet bikinis. Needless to say, he is outdebated.

''I thought it was good press for Sports Illustrated. I thought it was a
lark,'' says Reilly, of the TV spot that has aired since March and which Miller plans to continue through the summer. ''I can't believe I'm getting all this crap.''

Actually, Reilly's life has been pretty good lately. Devoutly coveted by SI's new rival, ESPN The Magazine, he sparked a bidding war and became sportswriting's first free agent. Reilly ended up staying at SI, but not before nailing down a salary of close to half a million and perks that include writing three movies for the magazine's corporate cousin, Warner Bro s.

But as a serious print journalist collecting cash to shill for suds, Reilly has crossed one of the few remaining boundaries separating journalism from abject commer cialism. And for that, he's taking his fair share of well-deserved ''crap.''

Bob Yates, sports editor of The Dallas Morning News and president of APSE (Associated Press Sports Editors), says the beer ad leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. ''It's kind of tacky,'' he says. ''It's sort of demeaning to both of them. ... It's hard to compare good journalism with the swimsuit.''

Reilly's SI colleague (and former Boston Globe sports staffer) Jackie MacMullan chooses her words carefully but pointedly when discussing a journalist's decision to become an ad pitchman. ''It's their credibility, not mine,'' she says. ''It's something I've chosen not to do.'' MacMullan says she's been offered several commercial opportunities, but SI ''did not want me to do it and I understood why.'' (SI spokesman Joe Assad says, '' We take each [request] on a case-by-case basis.'')

And on his weekly ESPN show, ''The Sports Reporters,'' Dick Schaap took a shot at Reilly's Miller commercial, asserting that ''I think that's having your cake - and drinking it too.''

Part of Reilly's problem here is the dreaded hypocrisy factor. In a high-minded February column asking his boss, Time Inc., to discontinue its sponsorship of the scandal-ridden Olympics, he proclaimed that ''all we have to trade on is our integrity.''

Now, he has invited critics like Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, to warn that ''it's very dangerous territory for journalists of any stripe to be promoting products. What it really is is an issue of what I'd call conflicting loyalties.''

Reilly seems genuinely taken aback by the controversy. He says he doesn't cover events - like auto racing - that are sponsored by Miller. Assad concurs, stating that ''we felt there was no conflict coming across between Rick doing the commercial and Rick doing his job at the magazine.''

Sports Illustrated colleague (and former Globe Staffer) Leigh Montville thinks Reilly's being unfairly pilloried based on idealistic but obsolete values. ''Now everybody does everything,'' he says of the mingling of media and money. ''Everybody does books on people they cover. I think that whole [ethical] line has disappeared.''

Reilly also thinks he's a victim of changing times, recalling how SI senior contributing writer Frank Deford had done famous TV beer ads years ago and nobody even raised an eyebrow. Now, Reilly's being badgered by a breed of journalists who didn't even exist back then. ''You know,'' he says of his tormentors, '' it's mostly been media writers.''

Speaking of the perception of conflict of interest, author Carol Felsenthal is making that accusation in a case involving two pillars of the media establishment - The New York Times and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Last year, Felsenthal, who has written biographies of Katharine Graham and Phyllis Schlafly, published ''Citizen Newhouse,'' an unauthorized bio of media magnate S. I. Newhouse Jr. It then garnered a very unflattering review from Columbia Journalism School Dean Tom Goldstein - who called it
''a rather dull hatchet job'' - in The New York Times Book Review.

Goldstein wasn't her only critic. Felsenthal admits the book got a
''horrendous'' review in The Washington Post and took a trashing in the
New York Observer. But she says she was taken aback by the negativity of the Goldstein review. And now she believes she has found a smoking - or at least warm - gun.

Doing some sleuthing, In These Times magazine learned that the Newhouse Foundation had donated $30,000 a year to the Columbia Journalism School in 1996 and 1997, the last two years in which records were available. In a May 6 letter to Times book review editor Charles McGrath, Felsenthal cried foul. Goldstein, ''should not have accepted the assignment,'' she wrote. And as the outlet that published the review, the Times, she added,
''should run an `Editor's Note' or some form of correction.''

''I think it's a nonissue,'' says McGrath, adding that ''it stretches
credibility'' that Goldstein would write a tough review to curry favor with the Newhouse benefactors. ''I'm very sensitive to ethical and conflict issues,'' adds Goldstein. And ''there is no conflict.''

There's one other little twist to the episode. Back in 1994, Felsenthal wrote to McGrath - who was then at Newhouse's New Yorker - asking to interview him for the biography. In a polite return letter, McGrath informed her that he could not comply unless Newhouse himself was cooperating.

This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 06/03/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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