Apr 1 2012

12th Annual Fear & Favor Review

Power and profit continue to twist the news

Art by Kym Balthazar

Art by Kym Balthazar

At a mandatory-attendance office party celebrating his first year as publisher, the Daytona Beach News Journal’s Michael Redding announced a new idea over marble cake and fruit: The paper’s newsroom staff, including reporters and editors, should also start selling advertising and subscriptions (Flagler Live, 3/31/11).

Redding offered incentives to staffers who haven’t had a raise in four years: a $25 bonus for selling a three-month subscription, $50 for selling $100 worth of ads.

This bold contempt for the idea that journalists should be insulated against the explicitly profit-motivated side of media is every day more prevalent. For every journalist who earnestly resists the pressures of owners and advertisers, there would seem to be two who don’t see the problem, like Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Danny Finnegan, who viewed the decision to cover the front page with a wraparound ad for Wells Fargo as uncontroversial since “anyone who reads the Times-Dispatch will know the wrap isn’t news content.” A staffer told Jim Romenesko (Poynter, 8/15/11) newsers were “shocked and angry,” but Finnegan hears it differently: “I’ve talked to several people who don’t necessarily like it, but they understand it.”

Readers and viewers, too, “understand” that corporate-owned media willfully compromise journalistic values for commercial motives at every turn. It’s a good part of the reason that more of us are seeking (and creating) sources of information that are structured to allow for different priorities.

Fear & Favor collects a recent handful of the sort of incidents that occur too often in U.S. newsrooms. But the state of affairs they reflect is conveyed as vividly by the “so what?” attitude of folks like Redding and Finnegan as by any list of examples.

In Advertisers We Trust

The official reason offered for former deputy editorial page editor Paul Davies’ leaving the Philadelphia Inquirer was his refusal to take a reassignment. But area newswatchers (Metropolis, 4/20/11) couldn’t help noting that Davies disappeared right after a March 5, 2011, column in which he cast a cold eye on plans for a $786 million, taxpayer-funded addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The column criticized unions, management, politicians “and their cronies,” but it was the Convention & Visitors Bureau that complained to the paper. (“We should all be rooting for the home team, and encouraging customers to choose Philadelphia,” was the gist of the argument.) Insiders told Metropolis’ Tom Ferrick (an Inquirer veteran) that the convention center board canceled an ad buy worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and demanded a meeting with the paper’s editorial board. “On the day Davies was fired, they called to cancel that meeting,” wrote Ferrick. “Why bother to meet when the problem was solved?”

The San Antonio Express-News didn’t hesitate to explain why it spiked a piece by staff columnist Scott Stroud, who wrote about longstanding concerns that the H-E-B grocery chain was underserving the city’s black neighborhoods with stores in serious disrepair, selling low-quality meat and produce that wouldn’t be offered in wealthier parts of town (Plaza de Armas, 4/5/11). The column “did not meet editor’s standards,” explained Express-News editor Bob Rivard, and he had words for any who imagined this had to do with H-E-B being a major advertiser:

I would suggest instead that we approach any story about H-E-B based on its longstanding and well-deserved reputation in the city, region and state as a best-in-class business, leading corporate citizen, and a company and ownership with an unrivaled record of philanthropy and support for public education in Texas.

Ah, those editor’s standards.

The story of Scott Burgess looked like a classic: An auto critic for the Detroit News, Burgess wrote a negative review (3/10/11) of the Chrysler 200 sedan (he called it a “dog”), and a car dealer advertiser complained. The online version of the piece was then altered in an effort, said publisher Jon Wolman, to “dial down some unnecessarily tough wording” (Automotive News, 3/24/2011). Burgess resigned in frustration.

But here’s where it gets weird: While still maintaining that the piece was changed for journalistic reasons, the paper admitted that it certainly looked like undue commercial influence. Wolman wrote a letter to News readers, apologizing for the incident as a “lapse” that Burgess was right to protest, and after a meeting, Burgess went back to the paper. “They apologized and I accepted it,” Burgess told the News (3/24/11), adding that “he was assured that the paper would set policies for changes to online reports ‘to make sure this would never happen again.’” And his comparison of the Chrysler’s profile to a “loggerhead turtle” has been restored.

Despite professional sports being a multibillion dollar industry, there are still those that argue that sports journalism isn’t really journalism, and sports reporters can be held to a different—meaning lower—standard than other reporters. Those people would have no problem with ESPN reporter Erin Andrews’ deal with Reebok, announced in January 2011, to promote their ZigTech sneaker, subsequently seen balanced on Andrews’ bicep in her Twitter profile photo. After all, Andrews doesn’t talk about sneakers on the job, right?

Except for when she does, as when she worked as a sideline reporter at the 2011 Rose Bowl, and suggested that Texas Christian University players “were having problems slipping on the Rose Bowl turf because of new Nike shoes they were wearing” (OregonLive.com, 1/25/11). “She went on to say that TCU did not have backup cleats,” according to the Oregonian’s Allen Brettman, who said Andrews’ comments were “the subject of plenty of tweets in the world of sports apparel.”

That was two weeks before the Reebok deal was announced (making it hard to imagine it wasn’t in the works at the time). Yet when asked about that deal, ESPN spokesperson Michael C. Humes nevertheless told Brettman conflicts would not be an issue because “it’s rare she would cover stories involving shoes in her role.”

(Don’t feel bad for Nike; it has deals with several other ESPN hosts—New York Times, 2/15/11).

PR and More PR

NBC’s “Making a Difference” segment (10/21/11) spotlighted Soul Kitchen, a Red Bank, N.J., restaurant where “those who can’t pay earn their meal by either working in the restaurant or in their community.” The “man behind the mission” is rock singer Jon Bon Jovi, who explains his inspiration: “We were watching the ‘Make a Difference’ segment and realized that next to housing, food is absolutely at the forefront of so many Americans minds.”

That’s a lot of love between Bon Jovi and NBC, and viewers are right to suspect the feeling might be less heartfelt than contractual. In 2009, NBC Universal set up an unusual relationship with the singer (Extra!, 12/09). As an “Artist in Residence,” Bon Jovi would not appear on other networks, but on NBC, he’d be everywhere from the Today Show to the Tonight Show. As a network spokesperson told TVNewser (10/15/09), “Any appearance by Bon Jovi will fall within NBC News standards.” The New York Times (10/15/09) reported that the “interview on the evening newscast, the date of which will be announced later, will come in the segment called ‘Making a Difference’ and will highlight Mr. Bon Jovi’s philanthropic work.”

A Reuters staffer was moved to post the contents of a package Vicks sent to a health stringer at the wire service (Embargo Watch, 10/10/11. The drugmaker presumably anticipated some payoff from a campaign that involved sending journalists boxes containing goodies little (chicken soup mix, a candle, tea, tissues, slippers) and somewhat less little (a digital photo frame, a Sony “bloggie Touch,” $100 gift cards for spas and electronics)—all together a package worth more than $400.

A similar calculation would seem to have been made by Botox maker Allergan, which offered freelance journalists $250 to take part in a “Facial Aesthetics Advisory Panel” (Poynter, 5/10/11. And by the U.S. Grain Council, which wagered that the chance to interview their representatives on “the latest happenings in the international marketplace” (Council News, 2/25/11) might be sweetened by the chance to win two free airline tickets “anywhere in the continental U.S.”

A journalist, one would think, would try not just to remain impervious to the wooing (with or without soup) of interested parties but to broadcast imperviousness. That’s not the approach of tech columnist David Pogue. The New York Times writer starred in a video seminar called “Pitch Me, Baby,” outlining, for those with $159, just how he prefers to be wooed (Poynter, 6/27/11).

After a kerfuffle, the Times barred Pogue from such speeches in future (NewYorkTimes.com, 7/6/11), though this one seems to have educational value. On one slide, Pogue “displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people.”

It isn’t just pharmaceutical or technology corporations with a vital interest in maintaining a positive media image, or the means of securing it. CNN International’s James A. Foley (CNNGo.com, 10/27/11) encouraged readers to hop on a plane to Fukushima, the site of the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Whatever one made of his assurances that “the land is by no means some apocalyptic scene of nuclear winter,” nor are inhabitants “glowing a radioactive hue,” perhaps most striking was the parenthetical note, tucked in halfway through: “Full disclosure: I was recently sent on an all-expenses-paid trip back to Japan, courtesy of the Japanese government, to see for myself that it still is a safe place to be.”

The Boss’s Business

When Johnny Depp appeared at the Austin Film Festival in October, Shelton Green, a reporter at Austin ABC TV affiliate KVUE, expected to get an interview, only to learn that all ABC stations were prohibited from speaking with or even shooting footage of the actor (Hollywood Reporter, 10/21/11). Why? Depp was in town for the premiere of his new film, The Rum Diary. And? ABC parent Disney doesn’t have a multi-million dollar investment in The Rum Diary, like it does in the Pirates of the Caribbean series in which Depp also stars. Evidently the biggest media company on the planet worried that exposure for Depp’s independently produced Rum Diary might overshadow its lucrative franchise.

The Arizona Republic’s 2011 investigation (3/29/11) of mismanagement and political corruption in the Fiesta Bowl was hard-hitting journalism, ultimately toppling the Fiesta Bowl CEO. But some critics felt the Republic was just a little too close to the story for comfort, as throughout the investigation the paper’s publisher, John Zidich, remained on the Bowl’s executive committee board. “I realize in my position that there could be an appearance of conflict between coverage and my involvement, but quite frankly this Bowl means too much to the community,” Zidich explained (Arizona Republic, 4/1/11).

While some might say the investigation is proof the publisher’s ties don’t prevent critical coverage, Arizona State University professor Tim McGuire took the opportunity to remind that that isn’t the point. “In my ethics class I constantly rail against the ‘my heart is pure as driven snow’ argument,” McGuire wrote (McGuire on Media, 3/30/11). “I may think I can’t be unduly influenced but I don’t get to decide…. If it appears to others there is a conflict, there is. Zidich’s heart may well be as pure as the driven snow, but that is never the test.” Zidich finally resigned from the Fiesta Bowl board in April.

When NBC Universal got broadcast rights to the 2011 Super Bowl, an executive noted that “more assets than ever are involved in the NBC Sports Group’s ‘Big Event Strategy’” (TVNewser, 9/6/11). Translation: Everything the company owned that could be made to serve as a promotional vehicle was so deployed. Football-related segments were planned for America’s Got Talent, Access Hollywood, the Tonight Show and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The Today Show based news anchors all week at the game site in Green Bay, Wisconsin; “themed” segments ran on CNBC, E!, Telemundo and the Weather Channel; and NBC affiliates in NFL markets wore NFL customized jerseys on air.

Synergy in the service of profit maximization, certainly. But such company-wide “team building” exercises, routine in the corporate world, have another purpose, too: They remind employees who they work for. News consumers should remember as well.