September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Drawing the line between church and state

If an advertiser or exhibitor so much as threatened to pull their ad or booth if we didn`t include them in our articles or on conference agendas, we`d show them the door.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a subscriber critical of our "promoting" organizations that helped online merchants find and purchase inexpensive merchandise in China. Why couldn`t we promote American manufacturers instead of organizations importing "junk" from China, the reader asked.

I responded that the promotions she found offensive were paid advertisements and conference exhibits. If someone pays to advertise in our publications or to exhibit at our conferences, I wrote, they can say what they want.

My explanation did not satisfy her. "Were you saying that IRCE speakers PAID for the privilege of speaking at the convention?" she wrote. "I`ll be glad to pass that fact along." That hit a nerve, and I replied in no uncertain terms that conference speakers are chosen by our editors based solely on their expertise on the subject matter of their presentation. No one ever pays to get on our conference agendas. With that the e-mail exchange degenerated into something resembling a town hall meeting on health care reform. I resolved to exercise more discretion in responding to unsolicited e-mails.

Yet the episode reminds me of the importance of communicating our strict policy of separating editorial coverage of e-retailing from advertising and exhibit sales. We live in an age when the lines between news, entertainment, opinion and marketing have become blurred, often because media companies profit from that distortion. This is painfully evident in the way cable news networks unabashedly slant their "news" coverage to cultivate viewership from the right or left of the political spectrum. Major media web sites prominently display comments at the bottom of news articles submitted by anonymous readers with an agenda. At times, those unedited, un-researched and unsigned comments have greater impact than the article that gave rise to them. And consider the thousands of bloggers who gain a loyal following by dispensing propaganda disguised as unbiased information.

I wonder whether we are becoming a nation of the misinformed?

Let there be no mistake about our editorial policy. The only place we express opinion is in this column. We accept paid advertising in print and electronic formats and charge exhibitors for booths at our conferences. We do not influence the promotional messages or selection of advertisers or exhibitors, nor do we allow them to influence our editorial coverage. If an advertiser or exhibitor so much as threatened to pull their ad or booth if we didn`t include them in our articles or on conference agendas, we`d show them the door. Our advertising sales people do not attend our editorial meetings and vice versa. Except for company outings and holiday office parties, these two staffs have little contact. We like it that way. We adhere to an old publishing principle that advocates a complete separation of "church and state" as the only way to ensure objective, honest and fair reporting of the competitors and trends in the e-commerce industry.

Our editors are all experienced reporters and writers who do their best to uphold the best traditions of American journalism. We trust them to choose the topics they want to write about because we know they are driven by a desire to report a good story that will inform our readers about things they need to know to succeed in the business of e-retailing. For the same reason, they control the agendas and speaker selections at our conferences. Space is for sale in our magazine and at our conferences. Editorial content is not.

Jack Love

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