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L.A. Times Pulls Fast One With Disney Ad

The Los Angeles Times raised about as much of a ruckus as a newspaper can these days, thanks to something that ran prominently on its front page Friday.

No, we're not talking about one of those stories of the garden-variety politician caught in a compromising situation with a college-age staffer. Or the eye-bleeder about some civic center seven years in the making that is now woefully over budget ...

No, all this fuss is over an ad that ran on its front page. OK, a big, damn ad.

The Times bounded outside the box of what many believe to be acceptable journalistic standards for what's left of the newspaper business, when it plastered an ad on its front page for the Walt Disney Company's "Alice in Wonderland" movie.

The ad featured a picture of Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter character in the movie superimposed on what was, in fact, a mock front page. The 'real' front page was inserted behind the fake. Essentially, the ad is what is known in the newspaper business as a 'wrap.'

The problem -- if you have a problem at all with this kind of practice -- is that the L.A. Times very overtly traded on its news brand to help sell a Disney product, and for the whopping ballpark sum of $700,000.

At a glance, it looks like the editors at the Times had chosen the movie as their top news story of the day. The recognizable Los Angeles Times flag is flying atop the Mad Hatter's head, and to the left and right are 'serious stories' with headlines aimed at health care and the war in Afghanistan.

At a time when the newspaper is suffering severe fiscal hardships, it's hard to fault them for going after this kind of revenue in all manner of ways, but fault them we will.

There would be no ruckus at all if the Times had simply run the ad on its inside pages.

There would also be little sympathy for the complainers (me) if the wrap had been clearly identified as an advertising tool.

It wasn't.

By using its normally serious, ad-free front page to give the appearance that the movie was the most important news of the day does dance around, and, in my opinion, cross the evaporating line between news and advertising.

The Times simply traded on its reputable news brand to help sell a movie for Disney. That Disney saw the brand to be worth so much money is impressive, but it makes the Times' decision no less grievous.

It certainly calls into question what kind of influence Disney (a big player in the Hollywood community) might have over other news decisions (future and former) made at the Times.

Even if there is no influence at all, it is still fair to contemplate such things thanks to the ad.

Can the leadership at the Times be counted on to be fair and even-handed with their coverage of Disney, now that they have already shown they will surrender their once-credible front page to them for a price?

What if the Detroit Free Press went out with a Disney-like ad with one of the big-three automakers?

What if The Salt Lake Tribune went out with an add like this for the Mormon Church?

What if The Washington Post ran an ad like this one for the Republican or Democratic Party?

It's a slippery slope, and at least would call into question whether there is undue influence by these deep-pocketed behemoths on these newspapers.

In the end there is something bizarrely fitting about the Times taking an ad for "Alice in Wonderland" to employ this controversial revenue-gainer.

These are strange and scary times in the shrinking world of newspapers. It's fair to say that in order for the business to survive, it's going to need to pull more than just the occasional revenue rabbit out of some mad hat.

It's best they do so, however, by making sure they keep their hands where everybody can see 'em.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)