How power shapes the news
U.S. media consumers are used to magazines where ads outnumber stories, to on-air hosts who contractually consume brand-name drinks, to “consideration provided by” this and “brought to you by” that. But when it comes to the news, many still maintain at least the kernel of expectation that reports in the paper or on TV have more to do with journalistic judgment than with anything else.
The Fear & Favor report is about some of the things that come between that image and reality on a daily basis. From pushy advertisers to heavy-handed owners and local power players, there are a number of individuals and groups who would love to see certain kinds of stories in the news and not see certain others—and they have strings to pull. It’s the job of the independent journalist to stand up to such powerful forces; when it doesn’t happen, the public has a right to know.
This annual report only highlights some specific instances, of course, to represent what seem to be ever-increasing predations on the efforts of reporters to work with independence and integrity. Some are classic back-scratches and behind-the-scenes deals, some new variations on the old theme. All are unfortunate reflections of a corporate media system that is structurally ill-suited to serve as outlet for the robust and diverse dialogue democracy requires.
The State & Other Powers
Los Angeles City Council members failed to push through a rule keeping reporters from getting near them at meetings, requiring “a uniformed sergeant-at-arms to escort scribes to an adjacent meeting room where interviews would be allowed” (L.A. Times, 5/22/10). But other efforts to restrict information had more effect.
The New York Times reported on documents released from Wikileaks, but allowed the White House to tell them how. One result: a November 29 story that claimed a leaked cable supported charges that Iran had received “advanced missiles” from North Korea. The Times printed the accusation, but “at the request of the Obama administration,” not the cable they claimed lent it credence. A look at the cable itself (FAIR Action Alert, 12/1/10), however, revealed that what the paper asserted as facts were no more than allegations, and weak ones at that, and the paper walked the story back (12/3/10)—though without explanation.
A near-daily sign of service to official powers is the abuse of anonymity. Editorial standards say to avoid such sourcing, which lets powerful people float debate-shaping ideas with no accountability. That rule was stretched beyond recognition in iterations like the New York Times’ citation (12/2/10) of a “senior FCC official” discussing FCC Chair Julius Genachowski’s net neutrality policy, “on the condition of anonymity because the chairman’s proposal was subject to change.” The Washington Post (5/26/10) likewise felt obliged to protect the identity of the brave soul willing to disclose the purpose of a White House trip to the Gulf Coast; the “senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations,” offered the red-hot scoop that “the trip will demonstrate that Obama is ‘on top of it.’”
Seattle police certainly seemed to have had something to do with local Fox affiliate Q13’s decision not to air footage of detective Shane Cobane kicking a prone man while threatening to “beat the fucking Mexican piss” out of him. (See Extra!, 8/10.) Videographer Jud Morris thinks the decision stemmed from Q13’s institutional closeness with the Seattle PD, which includes the station’s airing of Washington’s Most Wanted. He found it particularly strange that a news staffer got on the phone to the police while ostensibly assessing the footage for the news value it was ultimately determined not to have.
Philanthropies have interests, too, that reporters are in the business of scrutinizing; but what if those deep pockets are bankrolling the show? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pushes projects from genetic engineering to charter schools, among other things, so when ABC News formed a “partnership” with the Gates Foundation, to “offset” costs of a series on “global health problems and their potential solutions” (NYTimes.com, 10/6/10), ABC News president David Westin felt obliged to note that the network would decide where to go and what to cover—right before saying that news execs met with a Gates official to “pick his brain” about…where to go and what to cover.
The Boss’s (Other) Business
“Everyone was kind of waiting for Cablevision to meddle with the sports department,” said a reporter at New York Newsday, bought by the cable giant a few years back (New York Observer, 4/20/10). “It seems like it’s happening.” “It” was a top-down call for a “new, softer tone” on the sports page, and reporters expected it because Cablevision is run by Charles and James Dolan, a father-and-son team who also own the New York Knicks basketball team and the New York Rangers hockey team. (Thin-skinned and hands-on, James Dolan pulled $1 million worth of ads from the Village Voice after a columnist poked fun at him—NewYorkPost.com, 5/9/10.)
Veteran sports reporter Wallace Matthews left Newsday after editors deleted his description of former New York Jets coach Bill Parcells as “surly” and removed a reference to the barbed wire that surrounded the old Jets headquarters because it was “negative,” among other things. Higher-ups say the edict aims only at a better paper, but says one reporter, “You can’t tell journalists that there are things to avoid and call it anything but censorship.”
The influence of sports stretches beyond the sports page. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlis-berger has a worse-than-checkered public record. In 2006, Roethlisberger had a high-profile motorcycle accident, sans helmet or permit. That made it more newsworthy when a few months later, according to Sports Illustrated (5/10/10), “a reporter and a cameraman for KDKA-TV, the CBS affiliate that broadcasts Steelers games, were driving on I-376 in Pittsburgh when they saw two men on motorcycles and recognized one as Roethlisberger, who was not wearing a helmet.” The footage they shot, including the quarterback “giving them the finger as he sped away,” never aired. News execs denied the spike, and even that the tape exists, but Sports Illustrated found several people who claim to have seen it, one of whom insists, “If we had been the other affiliate [which doesn’t broadcast the games], it would have been A-1 news.”
For a corporation to use its news outlets to promote its other media properties may make business sense, but it’s not pretty. CBS’s indelicate efforts to promote the network’s remake of the crime drama Hawaii Five-O included having L.A.’s KCBS-TV news anchors wear leis on air, while on Chicago’s WBBM, the host offered viewers the weather forecast for Honolulu (WBEZ.org, 9/22/10).
Among the hardiest perennials in the field of intra-corporate promotion is the Super Bowl, whose newsworthiness magically morphs depending on who has broadcast rights. Thus, 2010 brought us CBS’s Face the Nation (2/7/10) opening with Bob Schieffer’s announcement that “the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, is not our only guest; also on the set today, the Super Bowl trophy.” Schieffer had a sarcastic answer to anyone questioning his show’s journalistic values: “Several people asked me this week, with all that’s going on, how can you leave Washington and politics behind and broadcast from a football game? The answer is easy enough. We went to the airport and got a direct flight.”
Can you guess which network aired the Vancouver Winter Olympics, just by seeing how many minutes of nightly news coverage were devoted to them (Tyndall Report, 2/4/11)?
Yes, you can.
Advertisers Make (& Unmake) News
While modern viewers are used to ads pretty much everywhere, finding them tucked in the middle of the nightly news and labeled “exclusive reports” is still pretty special. KTLA-TV in Los Angeles ran a three-part “news” series with plenty good to say about the “dramatic turnaround” at Ford Motor Co. Not until the end of the newscast was note made of the “sponsorship fee” Ford had paid the station.
But general manager Don Corsini told the L.A. Times’ James Rainey (2/5/10) that that disclaimer didn’t refer to the series, which was “produced solely at the station’s initiative,” but to a Ford-produced “documentary” called The New American Road, which ran the night after the series ended (a fact to which the newscast’s anchor helpfully alerted viewers). Corsini even acknowledged that KTLA let Ford know there might be some “news” features in their future while they were negotiating about buying time for the documentary, but he still maintained that giving viewers a heads-up wasn’t ethically necessary, and only aired “out of an abundance of caution.” To which Rainey appropriately rejoins: If that’s caution, “I’d hate to get a look at reckless abandon.”
Is it better if the fake news airs after the regular news, and sells a hospital instead of a truck? Short segments airing directly after the CBS Evening News on L.A.’s KCBS featured flashing CBS logos, as well as KCBS health reporter Lisa Sigell. Viewers might have noticed that Sigell always seemed to be interviewing staff from the same hospital, City of Hope Medical Center, but they could be forgiven for not knowing what the station didn’t tell them: that the segments were paid ads.
An anonymous KCBS official contended (L.A. Times, 4/21/10) the segments were “not that different from standard advertising,” while also noting that they’d been produced under a previous news director and that the current one would not allow news personnel in “sponsored spots.” Most cynically, the nameless rep stated his certainty that “people in the real world saw the segments for what they were.” Of course, if they really looked like what they were, they would be of significantly less value.
Elizabeth Werner travels the country talking about toys on the news. In winter, she recommends the “top 10 kids toys” for the year (MSNBC.com, 2/16/10); in summer, “toys to keep children cool” (Today, 6/25/10). Toys she doesn’t talk about? Those made by companies that haven’t paid her.
Werner told the L.A. Times’ Rainey (9/15/10) that her company, DWJ Television, always notifies stations that her on-air pitches are paid for. Thing is, as Rainey discovered, the stations don’t tell viewers, and, in the case of the three he contacted—Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta, Detroit’s Fox 2, and Phoenix station KTVK’s Good Morning Arizona—station officials claim not to have known themselves. Such ignorance could only be willful, suggests DWJ founder Dan Johnson, likening a belief that “an expert would tour the country without pay to tout products” to faith in the tooth fairy.
It’s worth noting that Werner routinely talks toys on big-league shows like NBC’s Today and ABC’s The View, appearances for which she “takes nothing,” though they obviously help loan credibility to her stints on all those local morning shows (not to mention drive up her asking price).
Yes, reporters at the Tribune Co.’s Chicago station WGN-Channel 9 could be seen on air wearing jackets displaying both the station’s logo and that of L.L. Bean. And yes, that’s because the station has an “arrangement” with the clothing company (Chicago Tribune, 5/19/10). But no, it’s not a conflict, because, says news director Greg Caputo, staffers aren’t required to wear the stuff, and can even “cover up” the logo if they want: “I don’t care what they do.” L.L. Bean also gets a weekly “newscast credit,” on top of the walking, talking promotion.
A sponsor’s “contribution” is not always an addition (or a ski jacket). The Boston Globe literally stopped the presses in order to kill an editorial cartoon by Dan Wasserman that poked fun at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Bank of America. The cartoon was scheduled to run the day of a celebration for the MFA’s new wing, but was “held” at the last minute. As Dan Kennedy reported Media Nation, 11/15/10), the Globe is deeply invested in coverage of the $500 million museum expansion, having published “a 56-page color glossy magazine commemorating the event…featuring, among other things, a full-page ad from—yes—Bank of America.”
Sometimes what the advertiser “subtracts” is a person’s job. Leaked emails (MC24.no, 7/8/10; Hell for Leather, 7/7/10) suggest that Dexter Ford, a longtime contributing editor with Motorcyclist, was fired from the magazine after a story he wrote about helmet safety standards for the New York Times (9/25/09) upset advertisers. In the emails, Motorcyclist editor-in-chief Brian Catterson says helmet makers threatened to pull ads over the article, which pointed to problems in certification labels issued by Snell, a testing organization financed by helmet makers. One email stated that, although Ford’s story was true and important, “none of that matters to the brass when two of our biggest advertisers are threatening to yank their ads.” Another: “I’m getting serious heat over this, to the tune of threatening my job unless I do something about you.” Which, evidently, he did.
Brave New Logrolling
Dan Gillmor (Mediactive.com, 4/8/10), generally a fan of both Apple and the New York Times, nevertheless declared his “increasingly uneasy feeling” about the ties between the two. In the run-up to introducing the iPad, he notes, Apple’s home page usually featured an iPad displaying a page from the Times; then a Times exec praised the device at its launch (a fact the paper’s write-up omitted, though the reporter-bloggers noted it).
Beyond that, Gillmor asks whether “Apple, which maintains control over what iPad apps are made available, have the unilateral right to remove these journalism organizations’ news apps if the apps deliver information to audiences that Apple considers unacceptable for any reason?” No doubt a topic for future Fear & Favor.
“This isn’t the ‘sponsored post’ of yore,” wrote AdAge’s Michael Learmonth (9/27/10) about Forbes magazine’s new “blogging platform,” AdVoice. “Rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand.” Forbes’ Lewis DVorkin didn’t mention “advocacy groups” in his description: “In this case, the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment.” Does Forbes want readers to know what’s news and what’s paid for? Kinda. Says exec Kevin Gentzel, “We feel in a very transparent and clearly labeled manner that these voices can commingle under the Forbes brand umbrella to provide a rich experiences for our users.”
Mary Knudson was a medical writer for the Baltimore Sun for 17 years. Her stint as a blogger on heart issues for U.S. News & World Report was significantly shorter. In her words (Speakeasy Science, 10/7/10):
An expert on heart failure, Knudson discovered that the words “heart failure” in her posts would send readers not to the resource of her choice, but to the Cleveland Clinic, because (wait for it) the magazine “has a partnership” with that hospital. Appalled at the notion of becoming “a U.S. News Stepford wife,” Knudson got out quick and is setting up an independent blog.