Last week, Time magazine launched what it calls its ''most ambitious environmental initiative ever''--a two-year, multimedia series spotlighting eco-activists. And in an unusual arrangement, Ford Motor Company signed on as ''exclusive sponsor'' of the series, called ''Heroes for the Planet.''

The deal bemused environmentalists, who have long fought Ford--as well as the other auto giants--over air pollution and global warming, and who suspect that Ford's effort to appear green is just a paint job. But the worst fumes emanated from Time, which seemed to indicate it was willing to smooth the road editorially for the auto giant.

Time international editor Charles Alexander, who's overseeing the ''Heroes'' series, told The Wall Street Journal's Sally Beatty that the Ford deal is ''fairly unusual because most of our pages aren't sponsored by particular people, and most of the time advertisers don't get to place their ads in certain places.''

And Alexander told the Journal that the series isn't likely to feature profiles of environmentalists battling the auto industry, just as it would exclude positive stories about carmakers. Such coverage, he said, could run elsewhere in Time: ''We don't run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes.''

Last week's Time contained no such awkward juxtapositions. The magazine devoted a 15-page special section--the first installment in the series--to activists fighting to save the oceans. An introduction proclaimed that ''Heroes'' would honor people ''who have gladly taken on the task of protecting the natural world from stupidity, greed, and careless commerce.''

Readers of the October 5 issue found a Roger Rosenblatt profile of marine biologist Sylvia Earle, as well as portraits of five other environmentalists. The section also contained five pages of ads for Ford, extolling the company's green record. Meanwhile, Time for Kids kicked off its own eco-hero series, and Rosenblatt recycled his Earle profile forTime Warner stablemate CNN.

So who will Time profile when it moves from the waters to the air? Alexander did not return a call seeking comment, but Time managing editor Walter Isaacson said concerns that the magazine had rolled over were misplaced. ''I don't mind Ford buying the series, because we retain complete editorial control, and we will write about whatever we damn please.'' As for Alexander's comments, Isaacson said they ''bothered me and I told him so. I also said that at a meeting, to emphasize its importance.'' Automobiles ''have caused pollution,'' he added. ''We will definitely say that.''

It is hard to imagine any extensive environmental coverage avoiding the subject. As the Sierra Club's Dan Becker says, ''Can you do a series like this and ignore one of the primary polluters of our air, a primary cause of half of our smog?''

Indeed, throughout the last decade the auto giants have been eco-villains in scores of environmental battles, and those brawls have produced scores of, um, heroes for the planet. In California, which passed model emissions standards for cars in 1990, activists like the Union of Concerned Scientists' Roland Hwang have ''had to fight the auto industry tooth and nail,'' as he puts it.

When Northeastern states like Massachusetts and New York voted to adopt low emissions standards, the auto giants filed a series of lawsuits. Activists like New York's Peter Iwanowicz helped defeat them. And in Michigan, community organizers like Brenda LiveOak are battling Ford over the pollution spewing from its Dearborn plant.

Becker, the Sierra Club's global warming expert, says the single biggest step we can take to slow the greenhouse effect would be to raise the fuel efficiency of cars, since vehicles pump 20 percent of the nation's global warming pollutants into the air. But the auto industry's ''conduct on this has been reprehensible. And Ford has been a leading opponent of efforts to curb global warming.''

To be fair, Ford itself has given signs that it may be pulling in for an overhaul. Last week's Time section included a commercial message from new company chair Bill Clay Ford Jr., the great grandson of Henry Ford. Bill Jr. is a self-professed ''passionate environmentalist''--a ''New Age industrialist,'' as Business Week put it last week. But even as its Time ads were declaring that ''You can have any color you want, as long as it's green,'' Ford was backing a ''rider worked out in Congress that sought to gag EPA from even talking about global warming,'' says Becker.

It remains to be seen, of course, if the Time series will cover the auto industry after all. It's not impossible. Alexander is regarded with a good deal of respect among environmentalists, and the ''Heroes'' series was his idea. (Isaacson also said, ''If there's anyone I trust to be tough on the environment, it's Charles Alexander.'')

In the end, Isaacson said the Ford deal had caused much alarm about nothing much. ''We have a pretty thorough church-state divide between edit and ad--I don't even know what arrangements were made with Ford. And I'm not particularly concerned.''

The Color of Monica

It may be that asking whether the church-state divide holds in the minds of particular mainstream media mavensis to ask the wrong question. More troubling--and more pointed--lines of inquiry are suggested by the multimedia, corporate networking that produced the Time-Ford package. Indeed, journalists are increasingly part of organizations that are themselves integral parts of infotainment monoliths. And even as journalists maintain their integrity by maintaining ignorance of their organizations' corporate agendas, synergy is creating muddled lines above the heads of virtuous editors and reporters.

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