Contrary to the suspicions of many in the general public, "journalistic ethics" isn't an oxymoron, but even after all these years it's still something of an iffy proposition. The business of bringing the news may have cleaned up its act since the days when reporters were routinely on the take and newspapers served as mouthpieces for political and financial interests, but it's still a long way from the cleanest act in town; journalists who fancy themselves to have achieved some sort of "professional" stature would do well to look at their trade with a cooler eye.

Thus we have by way of embarrassing example the car magazines: Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Automobile Magazine and, as a tour of any well-stocked newsstand will reveal, a whole host of lesser publications aimed at narrow constituencies within the country's large flock of auto fanciers. The quality of these journals ranges widely, from pretty good to genuinely awful, but in one area there is little variation: The relationship of these magazines to the industry they cover, and thus their journalistic objectivity, is highly questionable.

Another way to put it is that the car magazines are in bed with the auto manufacturers. This has been common knowledge for years, among journalists and readers alike; some months ago rumor was substantiated by reportage, in a Wall Street Journal story that contained unsurprising but damning details about handsome gifts bestowed by manufacturers on auto-magazine editors and writers, about junkets to exotic locales for test drives of new models, about writers serving as paid consultants to the same auto makers whose products they rate for car magazines.

These disclosures were met among ranking car-magazine figures by indignant if lame and unpersuasive denials of conflict of interest; the essence of their argument was that readers just have to trust them and, in any case, everybody else does it. Now, though, it is going to be a bit tougher for them to get away with this sham, because there has been a defection from the ranks. Last week the Journal reported that Car and Driver, biggest and best of the car magazines, "has told its staff members to end their cozy relationship with auto makers -- and asked the companies to stop passing out consulting fees and such freebies as compact-disk players."

This change in policy, which borders on the revolutionary, comes about at the behest of William Jeanes, the editor of Car and Driver. In a letter sent to auto manufacturers on Jan. 10, Jeanes said, "No one who works here will accept work from an auto maker, its advertising agency, or any other of its agents," and went on to make this request: "We would prefer that you not grace us with any gift that goes beyond the souvenir/memento level. This translates to no jackets, no luggage, no press kits placed inside luggage, no CD players, no binoculars, no cassette recorders, none of the many things that a generous auto industry has sent our way in years past."

Diplomatic words, those, but one needn't possess a postdoctoral degree in textual analysis to deconstruct them: Jeanes's tactful request amounts to an acknowledgment that manufacturers have been handing out bribes and journalists have been taking them. Even while claiming that, in the Journal's description, "Car and Driver's editorial stance wasn't affected by its old policy of allowing writers to work for car companies," Jeanes admitted the problem when he asked: "What does it look like to the reader, no matter how pure it may be and how untainted the article might be?"

That's precisely the issue: People who like cars read the auto magazines with interest, especially their reviews of new or redesigned models, but many read them with genuine uncertainty about the objectivity, and thus the reliability, of the judgments they offer. In the crowded and often confusing world of automobile retailing they represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the marketplace, but no one -- at least no one on the outside -- really knows how trustworthy they actually are; when some of their writers are known to be in the employ of car makers, and when others are known to be taking gratuities from them, how can readers be expected to trust them?

But make no mistake about it: Readers do count on their advice. Take it from the horse's mouth. For years I have been an irregular reader of several of them -- at present I subscribe to both Car and Driver and Road & Track -- and when car-buying time rolls around, I become an avid reader. In recent months both my wife and I have purchased new automobiles, and in both cases the counsel of Car and Driver was important to the decisions we made; my attention was drawn to a model previously unknown to me by an enthusiastic review in the magazine, and my wife's interest in another model was heightened by a similarly positive notice.

In the end both of us purchased the autos in question. We knew that Car and Driver's advice had to be taken with a grain or more of salt, but its endorsement was sufficiently articulate and persuasive so as to overcome our suspicions. As it happens we like both cars and look forward to driving them for five or more years, but it remains that the long-term commitment to these vehicles -- and the painful expense of purchasing them -- was made in good measure because of what we read in a magazine.

That we are scarcely alone was demonstrated by another story in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal that described Car and Driver's change of policy. Its lead paragraph reported: "Chrysler Corp. is rolling out one of the largest 'damage control' efforts ever attempted by an auto manufacturer in hopes of deflecting fallout from a negative review by Consumer Reports magazine." In a review of minivans in its current issue, Consumer Reports panned the "notorious" transmission in Chrysler's Dodge Caravan; the manufacturer is now desperately trying to counteract this attack on what its chairman, Lee Iacocca, calls "the crown jewels of this company."

To be sure, Consumer Reports is not directly comparable to the car magazines; its probity has never been seriously challenged, and readers tend to take its word as holy writ. But the point is that since a review of an automobile in any reasonably credible publication can have a significant effect on its fate in the marketplace, readers have a definite interest in the fairness and integrity of that review; if they know or have reason to suspect that the magazine is in bed with the industry it covers, they're entitled to question its standards.

But tell that to some of the other people in auto journalism. David E. Davis Jr., editor of Automobile Magazine, said of the Car and Driver decision: "Mr. Jeanes has taken himself a little too seriously and probably went too far." Leonard Emanuelson of Motor Trend claimed that gifts to his writers are "meaningless" and said: "The integrity of each guy who works here is much greater than being bought by a leather jacket." Tom Bryant of Road & Track described gifts as "an anachronism of the past" but acknowledged, according to the Journal, "that his writers continue to accept them."

All of which is most charitably described as hot air. The truth is that freebies and consulting jobs allow auto writers to pad their income at no expense to the magazines for which they write and that test-drive junkets relieve their editors of a not-inconsiderable business expense. Both practices may be good for the magazines' bottom line, but they're a mockery of editorial integrity; readers are right to be leery of magazines that permit them, and to salute Car and Driver for canceling its seat on the free ride.