MEDIA DISSENT: Welcome to Reader's Digest, New Mexico
A Town Built on Bigotry and Bought by America's Most Traditional Monthly. Why?
Philip Nobile is the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which
printed the banned Smithsonian script on the 50th anniversary
of the Bombs of August in 1995.
This column is not about Alex Haley, but it starts with him.
In November of 1992, I drove up to Reader's Digest headquarters in Pleasantville, New York, with some bad news: Haley, the magazine's recently deceased and most admired contributor, was a thief, and Roots, which the monthly had proudly sponsored, excerpted, and hyped to heaven was a hoax.
Ken Tomlinson, then RD's editor-in-chief, was not happy to see me. Haley was a personal friend. Tomlinson loved him for visiting his boy's sickbed. Nevertheless, along with several skeptical staff members gathered in his office, Tomlinson listened with an open mind as I ran down the incriminating evidence left behind in Haley's archives. The mood of the room grew somber. I was the skunk at the picnic. Yet the saddened Digest folks were polite and answered every hard question about their fallen saint.
After my visit, an ethical problem arose at the magazine. What to do about a planned Haley homage in its "Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met" slot? Tomlinson could have covered up Haley's transgressions ß lÓ Playboy and Emerge. Instead, he did the honorable thing -- he cancelled the tribute. Two years later, we crossed paths at an awards dinner. He graciously complimented my exposÚ of his old friend. That was classy. But that was then.
In the summer of 2000, history is repeating itself. Once again, I carried bad news to Reader's Digest, involving a matter of corporate ethics. But this time management shut the door and closed the windows. Nobody wanted to answer my questions about Reader's Digest, New Mexico, the town where the company sold its soul to Don Imus.
If you have not been listening to "Imus in the Morning" for the past few weeks, you may not know that the Reader's Digest Foundation donated $1 million dollars to Imus's ranch for cancer kids in Ribera, New Mexico. In exchange for this charity, Imus named the land on which the ranch sits, "Reader's Digest, New Mexico." Since Imus saturates his program with ranch talk, not an hour goes by without billboarding "Reader's Digest, New Mexico."
Consider this typical snatch of dialogue:
IMUS: I'm Imus in the Morning and it's five minutes past the hour. We're out at the Imus ranch in Reader's Digest, New Mexico, the little town here that designated in behalf of Reader's Digest because they put up a million dollars. And we like Reader's Digest.
CHARLES MCCORD: We do. You bet.
IMUS: And Tom Ryder who is the chairman and the big mucky-muck over there at Readers Digest [unintelligible] threatening to come out here.
Has the world gone mad? The Digest
and Imus go together like American Heritage
and David Duke, like National Geographic
and Bob Grant, like Ebony
and Mark Fuhrman. Why would a media institution famous for conservative values, moral uplift, and Roots
plant its seal of approval on a man who unaplogetically uses "nigger" in private conversation and admittedly broadcasts "racially offensive stuff"?
The simple explanation is desperation. The Reader's Digest Association, the monthly's parent corporation, is in rotten shape. Two years ago, after a long, steady drop in earnings and a diving stock price, the RDA sold off its founders' modern art collection, slashed the budget by $300 million, fired hundreds of employees and reduced the dividend to a nickle. The problem: despite a 14 million U.S. circulation and 100 million worldwide, the flagship monthly is saddled with declining advertising, an aging readership, and mail order fiascoes. Unable to stand alone in the current economy, new CEO William Ryder has tried merging with TIME, Inc. (failed) and Bertelsmann (ongoing).
In light of RDA's troubles, "Reader's Digest, New Mexico" appears to be a brazen brand extension in a younger, hipper demographic. For one million dollars, the company has gained prime product place in perpetuity on a hit radio and TV show favored by media stars and blue-chip sponsors. Even so, it's like the Boy Scouts buying spots on the Gay Cable Network.
I tried to interview Ryder, who also heads the foundation, about the propriety of "Reader's Digest, New Mexico." Among other things, I wanted to get his reaction to a recent racist parody of former NBA all-star Jayson Williams and a racist and homophobic promo quoting Imus's crack about black penis length and calling Abraham Lincoln a "homo." But unlike Tomlinson, Ryder made himself unavailable.
Instead I faced the brick wall of spokesman Bill Adler, who refused comment on Imus's bigotry and the details of the million dollar deal. "We do not want to take a position on the contents of the program pro or con," Adler said. "The Reader's Digest Foundation contributed to the Imus ranch because we wanted to help kids with cancer." Did this mean that the company was indifferent to Imus's smears of Knicks center Patrick Ewing as "the missing link" and Hilary Rodam Clinton as a "lesbianic wife" and "carpetmuncher." Adler replied, "We don't want to be drawn into a wider discussion."
As for the delicate matter of cancer kids, I asked Adler if the foundation had consulted a cancer care specialist on the $1,000,000 donation, that is, was the Imus ranch the most cost effective way to achieve the stated goal? After all, the ranch is not exclusively reserved for cancer patients. Children with other diseases (e.g., sickle cell) are welcome at the weekly sessions. Completely healthy kids also fill up the roster under the category of "sibling survivors of SIDS." Then there's the upkeep. The Imus place is a year-round working ranch eating up expenses when there are no kids around. Adler promised to get back to me. He never did.
Consequently, I am forced to go with my original impression that Ryder was thinking more about repositioning his company than assisting "kids with cancer" when he splurged on buying "Reader's Digest, New Mexico" from the baddest bigot east or west of the Pecos.
Published: Aug 09 2000