Fortune Article Goes After Rival Forbes
Forbes magazine has put its biggest advertisers off-limits to tough editorial criticism by its writers and has watered down unfavorable stories on others, Fortune magazine says in an unusually high-profile attack on a rival publication.
Forbes called the allegations, which appear in a Feb. 5 Fortune cover story, an act of desperation by an also-ran in a tough battle for advertising and readers.
Veteran magazine consultant Martin S. Walker said, “Usually quality magazines don’t attack each other in this way.”
Fortune’s assertions are contained in a story on GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, now on leave as president and chief executive of Forbes Inc. and as editor in chief of the magazine.
“Those charges are absolute horse manure. We’re the hardest-hitting magazine in America. And all those charges are from a competitor who realizes it can’t compete with us fairly,” Steve Forbes, who was campaigning in Alaska, said Monday.
But John Huey, Fortune’s managing editor, said the matter has been a topic of speculation in the industry for some time.
“The business journalism community is a small community. We’ve all long suspected that this is the case. But nobody was going to write about it until Steve Forbes offered himself up as a candidate for president of the United States. At that point, we thought it became a legitimate issue for us, whether we’re competitive or not,” Huey said Monday on CNN’s “Inside Politics.”
Specifically, Fortune, citing seven current and former Forbes writers and editors who were not identified by name, says Forbes “systematically allows its advertising executives to see stories--and command changes--before they run.” Magazines typically keep editorial and advertising operations separate.
Further, Fortune says, “certain companies have been said to be ‘untouchable'--exempt from tough editorial criticism--because of the amount of advertising they place in Forbes.”
It says General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Rockwell International Corp., General Electric Co. and the insurer American International Group are on the “untouchable” list.
Even smaller advertisers, Fortune says, have received unusual concessions from the magazine.
Fortune said its sources “have seen stories changed if the writer has turned in a negative assessment of an advertiser,” often on instructions from people who sell advertising space. In some cases, the assessment of the company at issue was changed from downbeat to upbeat as a result the changes, Fortune says.
Forbes Inc. issued a statement in response, saying, “What do you expect from an also-ran business publication like Fortune?”
Forbes noted that Fortune was third in number of ad pages among the three leading business publications last year. According to figures from Publishers Information Bureau, Forbes had 4,542 ad pages, BusinessWeek had 3,816 and Fortune had 3,184 for 1995.
Fortune also trails in circulation, at 752,320 for its North American edition in the six months ended June 30, according to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation. BusinessWeek led at 877,701 and Forbes had 776,850.
“Fortune can’t compete with Forbes directly, so in desperation it is reduced to printing scurrilous, partisan cheap shots. To respond to them would be to dignify the business equivalent of tabloid journalism,” Forbes’ statement says.
Asked about specific allegations in the story, Forbes Managing Editor Lawrence Minard said, “We are not going to respond in any point-by-point way,” and deferred to the magazine’s statement.
Walker, the consultant, said, “At some corporate level there is always some review of editorial” material by executives mindful of how advertisers may react. He said in many cases, advertisers are warned when an unfavorable story may appear so they can choose not to advertise in that issue.
“If this were Money magazine, I doubt Fortune would have written the same story,” Walker said. Fortune and Money are published by Time Inc., a unit of Time Warner Inc.