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From AJR,   August/September 2007  issue

The View from the Woods   

And getting a new perspective


By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Here's the news from a remote corner of Warrick County, Indiana. After a solid month without rain, three straight days of summer showers sent the local corn crop shooting up as if on steroids. The fragile cherry trees planted a year ago didn't make it, but the peach trees are doing fine. A clumsy blackberry picker flushed a huge tom turkey from the patch near the north woods. And what that same startled fellow at first assumed was the steady whump-whump-whump of helicopter rotors instead turned out to be the wings of a very low-flying hawk searching for its lunch.

Once in a while it's not a bad thing to come back to the country and get a field mouse's perspective on life.

About those woods: I've been reading the one-volume version of Carl Sandburg's majestic biography of Abraham Lincoln that I picked up for $2 at the Book Broker over in the big city, Evansville, about 30 miles away.

Reading about Lincoln out here has special resonance. I can't prove it, but there's no reason to think young Abe didn't walk these very hills and dales as a teen. He grew up a few miles northeast of here. If he wasn't on this actual property--and he may well have been in his routine traversing of Warrick and Spencer counties--he'd surely recognize the terrain: open fields alternating with robust woods full of oaks and maples and black walnuts and persimmons (they of the messy, seedy fruit) and dogwoods and sycamores and poplars and cherries and gums (they of the spiky little balls) and elms, long dead now from disease.

And certainly he was familiar with the nearby communities then taking root--Gentryville, Boonville (Booneville at the time, after Daniel), Bullocktown. My wife has Bullocks in her family. Maybe her people knew Lincoln, maybe they traded stories or even rassled with him.

Southwestern Indiana will never be mistaken for coastal Maine--although we do have a nice lake behind the house--but when I am out here I understand the liberation E.B. White felt when he absconded from New York for his adopted country home. From the peaceful perspective of an old boathouse, sitting on a wooden bench as he bent over his typewriter, White turned out essays that managed to be as elegant as they were grounded in his uncommon common sense.

I've tried to spend my past few weeks in the country continuing to research a book, and in going through archival material I came across some news clippings involving old E.B. I guess I heard about the dustup at the time but had long since forgotten it.

It was in 1976, and Esquire magazine had cut an interesting deal with Xerox. The company paid Esquire to commission a lengthy article from the venerable New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury called "Travels Through America." Salisbury got a tidy $40,000 for the piece plus expenses; Esquire got $115,000 from Xerox for an advertising package; and Xerox got to run its ads bookending Salisbury's article. Xerox had plans to similarly commission several other major writers.

Then in his mid-70s, White read of this enterprising transaction and took a decidedly dim view of it. He believed such overt commercial underwriting of print news content was a dangerous precedent, and was moved to fire off a brief letter of protest to his local paper, the Ellsworth American. Xerox, to its credit, took note and asked White for a fuller argument. He responded with a lengthy letter that was really one of his signature essays.

"It was as though Esquire had gone on relief, was accepting its first welfare payment, and was not its own man any more," wrote White, continuing, "Whenever money changes hands, something goes along with it--an intangible something that varies with the circumstances. It would be hard to resist the suspicion that Esquire feels indebted to Xerox, that Mr. Salisbury feels indebted to both, and that the ownership, or sovereignty, of Esquire has been nibbled all around the edges."

White died in 1985, before the rise of the Internet, and it's safe to assume that he would not have been a Web kind of guy even if he had stuck around to see the development of our new digital world. But it's equally safe to assume he would have been as alarmed at the implications of "sponsorship" of Web content as he was about the Esquire-Xerox arrangement.

Thus far the Web commercial environment is a sponsored one rather than pay-as-you-go. Advertisers, not consumers, are paying the freight. Both startups and traditional media are desperate for Web revenue, and in some cases that desperation is blurring lines of editorial propriety to the point of co-opting the news function. This cannot be a healthy thing.

"I don't want IBM or the National Rifle Association providing me with a funded spectacular when I open my paper," White wrote, "I want to read what the editor and publisher have managed to dig up on their own--and paid for out of the till."

Xerox stopped sponsoring stories. White returned to his sheep and chickens.

And as for me, I will be returning to work in a few days. I'm already missing my hawk.