Imprisoned by dreams: Reagan, Focus and consumer media

San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 28, 1989

The [San Francisco] Chronicle's newest columnist recently confided to her readers that the last magazine she had worked for lacks substance because advertising drives its editorial policies. The topic is so potentially rich that I wished she had gone further and talked about our mutual stint at San Francisco Focus, where we watched from the inside as that phenomenon developed.

That's when consumer journalism took over, falling like designer shrouds on the alleged integrity of the free press. The very purpose of consumer journalism, after all, is to produce the perfect shopper.

Focus, you may remember, was once the house organ of an educational TV station, a nonprofit educational TV station at that. Trouble was, it was a money drain — at a time when Reaganauts back in D.C., all too aware of how education erodes their electoral base, were hacking away with machetes at federal funding for public broadcasting. Cable TV, too, was invading the ecological niche that educational TV once had all to itself. KQED had no choice but to turn a trick or two, or fifty, if it was to continue bringing quality programming and pledge breaks to its viewers. It would, in fact, have to go commercial without saying so.

That's where the editorial boys from the Berkeley Barb came in. They had tired of Gallo hearty burgundy and spaghetti just when they were invited over from the East Bay to jazz up the old house organ. Why not use KQED's upscale subscriber list as the rocket fuel for a successful city magazine, they reasoned? Why not turn Focus into a virtual Comstock Lode of advertising on the model of New York Magazine and enjoy the perks that came with it?

And that, of course, is just what they did. For a freelance writer weary of the old check's-in-the-mail routine, clockwork payment from the KQED payroll office was like entering the promised land. Likewise the opportunity to write on substantive issues like [the poisoned] Kesterson [National Wildlife Refuge] and Philip Johnson and urban growth and land speculation.

Did I say speculation? Now let's not get carried away with this First Amendment stuff, Gray.

Evolution is a pitiless process, and some species get left behind. Over the years, my own ideas on the environment and cities were changing, and so was Focus.

The Chronicle's columnist noted how "now advertisers pay the bills, and the magazines print what advertisers like to see next to the ads." An article, in layout, quickly trails out to single-column width to lead the reader through a wonderland of unspoiled beaches, Vuitton luggage, name hair stylists, and the other necessities of life. You don't want to give your reader a bumpy ride through that paradise.

The smart editor recognizes this. Can't you write that beautiful stuff you used to write? my editor at Focus implored me. Somehow, it just didn't flow the way it used to, as I noticed the world growing uglier, hotter, deader, and decidedly unwiser by the minute. I guess I was losing my sense of humor.

In my mind, the little mess at Kesterson that I'd helped to reveal in 1984 [as a writer and producer at KQED] spread itself throughout the toxic Central Valley and ramified across a hemisphere whose dirty skies are now nearly empty of birds. This spreading death has something to do with those Vuitton bags, that certain sense of style sans responsibility. It has something to do with television, yes, and with all the glossy magazines whose real message is so contrary to the intent of KQED's beguiling nature shows.

My column became more strident as Focus became anything but. "Cityscapes" was like finding a piece of broken glass in your gourmet sorbet. Articles began to be killed, and then there was the furor set off by a column of mine that Focus did print on what was about to happen to San Bruno Mountain [south of San Francisco]. Development consultant and one-time supervisorial candidate [and now husband of Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins] Mark Buell wrote to the editor that he couldn't "help but question an article which, in the first paragraph, uses the term 'peculiar violence' in reference to the surrounding urban area."

For an encore, I decided to do a column on the [proposed homeporting of the] USS Missouri [backed by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein]. Call me a malcontent, but the sordid history of lies concocted by the plutonium priests bothers me, as do their experiments on civilians and servicemen. I dared to mention these issues in the debate on the old porkbarrel dreadnaught. I submitted the article, was told by superiors that it was "inappropriate," and walked. (The article was published in the Bay Guardian 8/21/87). You see, I'd thought it was the job of a columnist to express an opinion — but after all, this was not an opinion piece about how hard it is for a neurotic to get laid in San Francisco. There's a big market for that kind of writing.

When Focus publisher Earl Adkins left the magazine last year, it was only natural to move advertising sales director Susie McCormick across the hall into his office. The change was only a formality.

The media kit that Focus gives to all its advertisers says it all. A full-color editorial calendar displays monthly themes: Six months are principally devoted to fashion, style, or interior decoration. Three are dedicated to fine eating and alcohol, one to travel, one to partying, and one to Frisco narcissism, though all are standard themes in the monthly editorial fugue.

That's what potential advertisers like to see. Ditto the demographics, which boast that "an impressive one-quarter of our subscriber households have incomes of $100,000 or more" and "Focus subscribers have used their credit cards at least three times as often as the average Western adult in the past three months." In short, the Focus reader is the ideal consumer, and is getting what he or she needs to know about what to consume to be absolutely up-to-the-minute. Like commercial TV, the glossy magazine's function is to provoke not thought but insatiable appetite. KQED weeds out diluting statistics by offering low-income rates to viewers who get only the program guide, minus the magazine.

Not only the magazine is changing at KQED, as it gradually adds advertising to its programming. Today between shows we will see Smuckers Jam, museum-quality watches, and luxury automobiles and hear about the lucrative virtues of investment houses.

To its credit, KQED recently ran a provocative Bill Moyers show, heavy in both form and substance. "The Public Mind" dealt with the impact of advertising-driven media on the nation's politics. As disturbing issues vanish in a whirl of sound bites and comforting images, Moyers concludes that western media have created an illusory world, diverging from what is actually happening at a rate now approaching the speed of light.

I thought about that as I watched East Germans on TV walking through the wall they brought down. One can't help respecting those people. They, at least, knew that they were imprisoned in a dream of their leaders' making, and that it was killing them.

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