It would be hard to overstate the impact of news media in shaping public opinion, on issues from healthcare to plans for war. With media such an influence on us, it’s crucial that we understand who’s influencing media.
FAIR’s annual Fear & Favor report is an attempt to chart some of the pressures that push and pull mainstream journalists away from their fundamental work of telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may. These include pressures from advertisers, well aware of their key role in fueling the media business; from media owners, who frequently use their journalistic outlets to draw attention to, or away from, their other corporate interests; and from the state, as the last year has made especially clear, with the Bush administration doing its best to promote its own spin on events and to tamp down dissent.
While by no means exhaustive, Fear & Favor offers specific illustrations of these broad phenomena, in the belief that an understanding of the forces at work and their concrete, day-to-day impact will help media consumers decode the news they get, and recognize what news they do not get, from the corporate press.
As always, this report is dedicated to journalists who continue to stand up for independent reporting — like Kathy Finn, former editor of New Orleans’ CityBusiness, who was fired in 2002 after objecting to a series of commercial encroachments including the introduction of “advertiser-sponsored news pages” (CJR, 9-10/02). One wonders: What are the odds the paper would hire someone who shared Finn’s ideas to replace her? And how many outlets are left where she, and journalists like her, can work without such constraints? These questions should concern not just reporters who want to work without fear or favor, but the public that relies on that reporting.
In Advertisers We Trust
In a commercial media system, the advertiser is king. It’s even better to be king during a recession, when the sponsors whose dollars media rely on are able to push for better deals: product placement, extensive promotional packages, etc. Outlets looking for corporate support come up with plans of their own that may be lucrative but hardly seem journalistic — like Seattle TV station KIRO, whose website includes a section called “kirotv.com Experts.” You wouldn’t know by looking that the main qualification for being an “expert” is being able to pay the station as much as $1,000 a month (Seattle Times, 6/7/02).
Media outlets routinely claim that such deals do not influence the content of their coverage, but they haven’t shown themselves eager to spell out such relationships to an already skeptical audience.
* The New York Times has a special fondness for Starbucks. The front page of its April 29 Metro section devoted over 1,300 words, with two big photographs, to chronicling the coffee chain’s rapid growth in Manhattan, along with anecdotes about how New Yorkers “love to complain about Starbucks…yet they drink Starbucks coffee by the gallon.” Part business story, part lifestyle piece, the article presented Starbucks as part of the New York way of life, explaining that “the coffee shops provide an environment for doing homework, writing screenplays, holding business meetings, socializing after work or reading the newspaper.”
But not just any newspaper. As the story eventually discloses, the Times happens to have a promotional agreement with Starbucks, requiring the chain to sell only the Times in its stores, excluding all other national newspapers. In return, the paper promotes Starbucks in national ad campaigns.
The agreement calls for ads, not favorable news stories, but readers may be forgiven a little confusion—especially since, just a few weeks later (6/1/02), the Times’ main front page featured another Starbucks celebration. This time it was the company’s European rise that was tracked admiringly, and the Viennese who, though many “sniff that their culture has been infected,” have nevertheless made Starbucks a “resounding success.” One other difference: This time the paper didn’t bother disclosing that they have a promotional deal with the company.
Nor was the deal disclosed in the paper’s July 9 installment, “In Japan, Make That Starbucks to Go,” though readers did learn that “with a strong brand name in Japan, Starbucks now feels it can meet the competition by going into the stand-up fast-food business—and do so without cheapening its image.” Had the deal been disclosed, readers still might not have seen a smoking gun in the New York Times’ zealous coverage of their promotional partner—but it might have helped to explain the bad smell.
- Charlie Rose is a correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes II and hosts his own talkshow on PBS. He also had another job last year: MCing the Coca-Cola shareholders’ meeting at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he gushed about the privilege of being associated with “the Coca-Cola family” (KCRW, Le Show, 4/21/02).
CBS policy is that news correspondents may not do commercials or product endorsements, but a network official told the Washington Post (4/23/02) that the company was “comfortable” with Rose’s role at the Coke meeting. For his part, Rose told the Post that he saw no ethics problem because, among other things, he was only paid a “minimal” sum for his appearance (as if conflicts of interest only kick in over a certain dollar amount).
In any case, Coca-Cola’s agreement to become a leading underwriter of the Charlie Rose Show is not minimal; the Post reported Coke will be funding the show “to the tune of six or possibly seven figures.” This is also no problem, according to Rose, who told the Post that he “would never do a story on 60 Minutes about anybody who underwrites my PBS show.” (A promise to avoid covering a sponsor, of course, is no less a conflict than a promise of favorable coverage.)
Attentive viewers may have noticed a mug at Rose’s elbow sporting what appears to be the distinctive red-and-white Coke logo on one side, and the Charlie Rose Show logo on the other. The Orange County Weekly reported (1/24/03) that “the mystery” of the mug was solved when guest Robin Williams “picked up the cup with the Rose logo facing viewers, then turned it around to expose the Coca-Cola logo.” According to the Weekly, Rose responded to Williams’ maneuver with “nervous chuckling.”
- Sometimes media favor their advertisers not with a story’s content but with its placement. The Wall Street Journal’s October 3 edition carried an ad on page C3 for the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns. On the same page, readers learned from a news report that Bear Stearns had just made a tremendous error — accidentally ordering a sale of $4 billion worth of stock, instead of $4 million. The juxtaposition of that news with an ad hawking the company’s ability to “execute complex transactions — flawlessly” was striking, to say the least; such coincidences are not unprecedented, however, and a usual reaction would be for the paper to move the ad to mitigate the problem. But this time, according to a report from thestreet.com (10/11/02), the Journal chose to sacrifice the news instead: Later editions of the paper carried the ad in its original place, while the bad news about Bear Stearns had been reduced to a subsection of another story on a different page.
The Chicago Sun-Times wanted to improve its coverage of the city’s theater scene. But according to an account in the New York Times (6/3/02), “in meetings with theater owners to find a solution to their problem, the executives may have sent an unintended message: that if the theaters wanted more coverage, they should take out more ads.” Marj Halperin, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, told the New York Times that Sun-Times executives suggested to her that theaters advertising in the paper might get preferential treatment on the news pages. The Sun-Times denied that such a link exists, though the paper has a history of tying coverage to advertising (Chicago Reader, 1/17/97).
- It’s hard to deny the link between ads and news at the Washington Times, where an ad salesperson actually called a group that had been criticized in the paper to suggest that it buy an ad to air its side of the story. The Unification Church-backed paper had been attacking the advocacy group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, publishing more than a dozen stories and editorials in a year suggesting that forest service employees planted false evidence of a rare Canadian lynx in forests in Washington. Subsequent investigations showed that the Times’ reports were erroneous (Extra!, 5-6/02).
Perhaps the Times ad rep thought he’d have an easy sell, therefore, when he suggested to the group that they consider buying a $9,450 ad to counter the negative coverage. The group, however, was simply appalled. And when the story got out (Washington Post, 2/4/02), Times general manager Richard Amberg said the whole thing was “just a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.” Indeed.
The Boss’s Business
Media owners, whether powerful families, individuals or corporations, seek to influence news content in many ways. Some seem almost quaintly overt, as when San Francisco Examiner publisher James Fang reportedly told then-editor David Burgin (Washington Post, 3/18/02): “We bought the paper for two reasons, business and politics. I see 5 percent of the stories having to do with what the Fangs need, promoting the Fangs and our interests.” Days after Burgin made clear he defined the editor’s role rather differently, he was fired.
Corporate boasts of “synergy” are less direct but amount to the same thing: owners using media they control to promote their “interests,” as when AOL Time Warner’s Time magazine declared AOL Time Warner’s movie The Two Towers a resounding hit before it was released. (Cover line: “Good Lord! The Two Towers Is Even Better Than the First Movie”—12/2/02.)
Such cross-promotion is ubiquitous, but no less unethical than a small-town newspaper owner who uses the outlet to promote the used-car business he runs on the side.
And journalists who resist pressure from upstairs—whether that means a pushy publisher’s office or a mega-corporate HQ—face consequences up to and including the loss of their jobs. Readers and viewers may never learn that a reporter was fired or demoted or moved off the beat. Nor will they be aware of the stories that go untold as a result.
- “I love Push, Nevada!” exclaimed ABC‘s Good Morning America weather reporter Tony Perkins (9/4/02), surrounded by what appeared to be teenage athletes. “Because the guys from the Push, Nevada, high school hockey team have given me this jersey!” Perkins gave details about the team’s record and their chances for the season before going back to the weather.
Good Morning America claimed they had no idea that “Push, Nevada” was not a real town but the name of a new primetime drama airing, like Good Morning America, on ABC. The drama program’s producers did acknowledge that they’d hired actors to pose as real people on a news show, but instead of calling it a misleading hoax or a journalistic transgression, they called it an edgy promotional technique suggested by their marketing company.
If the network is to be believed, the Push, Nevada stunt was so “under the radar” that no one at ABC’s news or entertainment divisions knew about it. They don’t appear to have been too upset, though: As Lisa de Moraes pointed out in the September 6 Washington Post, the network hadn’t edited out what turned out to be a lengthy plug for the series by the time Good Morning America aired on the West Coast.
- In the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the main character, New York playwright Siddalee Walker, is interviewed by the New York Times. But in the movie, Siddalee, played by Sandra Bullock, sits down with a reporter from Time magazine instead. As the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz noted (6/17/02), “The Time interview is mentioned repeatedly in the film, and toward the end Bullock is inducted into the sisterhood and presented with a hat bearing a big fat Time logo.”
Accounting for the change is not only the fact that the movie was from Warner Bros., another AOL/Time Warner unit, but that the New York Times would not allow the depiction in the film of events that never took place. Time, on the other hand, was happy to cooperate. “Product placement is a good thing,” Time spokesperson Diana Pearson told the Post.
- Coverage of the Olympics is a perennial case of corporate self-promotion overtaking news judgment. The 2002 Winter Olympics were broadcast on NBC and its affiliated cable channels, and as previous experience would have predicted, NBC Nightly News found the event far more newsworthy than other networks (69 minutes of coverage, compared with 30 minutes at ABC and 10 at CBS). According to ADT Research, publisher of the Tyndall Report, NBC’s Today show devoted 544 minutes to the Olympics — more than any other news story for the entire year.
The use of morning news shows, especially, as promotional vehicles for network fare is not restricted to NBC, of course. Noted J. Max Robins (TV Guide, 1/18/03), “CBS’s Early Show provided slavish coverage of Survivor (432 minutes) and the low-rated Amazing Race (129 minutes).” Some indication of what all that “synergistic” coverage was replacing: The 79 minutes Good Morning America devoted to The Bachelor was “more time than was spent on the midterm congressional elections.”
- Media bosses’ business interests extend beyond their own corporate parents, of course. In July, the Washington Post gave extensive attention to the Cadillac Grand Prix, a Washington, D.C. road race. But it wasn’t until days into their coverage that the paper acknowledged that they had a business relationship with the event. The Post signed on as an “exclusive print and online advertiser,” D.C.’s City Paper revealed (7/18/02) — which meant that the paper got ad dollars from the grand prix, along with other “considerations,” like signs at the race site.
The Post’s reporting wasn’t uncritical. For example, some coverage detailed stonewalling by the Sports Commission on event financing. But the paper’s failure to disclose its interests without prodding raised eyebrows even within its own ranks. In his July 28 ombudsman report, the Post’s Michael Getler reminded editors that, no matter how plausible their claims of editorial independence, “this is a tricky business in which credibility, which can’t be bought, can be squandered.”
- Some outlets seem to think disclosing a conflict of interest is the same thing as avoiding it. According to Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/ 2002), the Las Vegas Sun didn’t attempt to hide that its sole owner, the Greenspun family, also owned half of the newly opened Green Valley Ranch Station Casino. But neither did it explain whether that economic link had anything to do with the 400 column inches it devoted over two days to the casino’s opening, with 13 photos and three maps.
- Roy Brown, CEO of the Brown Publishing Company chain of Ohio newspapers, apparently suffers from a similar lack of embarrassment. Brown, who was running for Congress, sent editors at some of those papers a series of “must-run” press releases from the campaign, followed by “stacks of Brown-for-Congress flyers” (CJR, 3-4/02). One of the editors, Kevin O’Boyle of the Vandalia Drummer News, complained, telling the Dayton Daily News (4/6/02) that the company’s actions broke every rule in the book. O’Boyle was fired two months later.
- Among the most high-profile tales of an owner’s heavy hand is that of former New York Post entertainment reporter Nikki Finke. Finke was fired after writing critically about the Walt Disney Company and their legal wrangling over the licensing rights to Winnie the Pooh. It seems that Post parent news corporation and Disney had an online business deal in the works, and after Disney complained to its new partner about Finke’s reporting, threatening to pull its advertising as a consequence, she was history. Post editor Col Allan claimed the firing was due to “inaccuracies” in her work, yet the paper never ran any corrections (Village Voice, 4/30/02). Finke, now a columnist at LA Weekly, filed a $10 million suit against the Post and Disney. As Extra! went to press, her case remained unsettled.
Powerful Players & PR
A powerful individual, lobby or institution need not own a media outlet outright or fuel it with ad dollars in order to exercise influence. Sometimes the pressure comes from a store that sells the media outlet in question, whose disapproval might affect distribution. Or a powerful corporation makes it known that its displeasure with local media might cost a town jobs and resources.
And some influence, like that of Wall Street, appears to be so widespread and so internalized by media decision-makers that no overt exertion of power is necessary. Such influence can be harder to pin down, but its effects are nonetheless palpable. Finally, some journalists are themselves walking, talking conflicts of interest. Nancy Snyderman was one of those: The ABC News medical correspondent was suspended without pay for a week by the network last year after she appeared in a radio commercial for Tylenol (New York Daily News, 4/30/02). Snyderman found a way out of her journalistic conflict, though; she left ABC in December to become vice president of medical affairs at Johnson & Johnson — the company that makes Tylenol.
- CNBC, the financial news cable channel owned by General Electric, had a novel response to the business troubles of 2002. As reported in a Dow Jones Newswire column by Brian Steinberg (1/26/02), CNBC began airing a series of promotional spots that featured network reporters and anchors making can-do declarations about the economy.
“People are battling back. . . . Business is coming back, slowly but surely,” declared Maria Bartiromo in one spot. In another, Ron Insana assured viewers that “most people don’t realize that by the time you figure out you’re in a recession, it’s almost over.” Reporter David Faber went even further, saying, “We know who our enemies are. We’ve identified them, and we’re going after them.” According to Dow Jones, Faber went on to suggest that as a result of this new resolve, the post-September 11 world is “less risky.”
Setting aside the unsettling image of CNBC staffers “going after” the nation’s “enemies,” it’s ethically suspect to place journalists whose job is reporting economic developments in the role of predicting them. And, as Steinberg suggests, the network may be motivated by something other than faith in the U.S. economy: CNBC’s ratings tend to rise—and fall—with the market.
- Lou Dobbs, anchor of CNN’s Moneyline, stayed cheerful in the face of a year of conflicts of interest. According to MSNBC.com (4/4/02), Dobbs has been doing radio ads for financial services companies—an industry he covers on CNN. Though Dobbs isn’t identified by name in the voiceovers, they air after the financial news spots he does on United Radio Networks and NBC. When asked if he might be compromising his integrity, Dobbs told MSNBC.com, “That is a silly, silly question. Would I do it if I thought I were compromising anything? I’ve got to run now.”
CNN couldn’t see the problem either, telling MSNBC.com that it was “standard practice” for radio journalists to read ad copy, adding, “Howard Stern does it.” The network also stood by its man when critics questioned Dobbs’ vigorous defense of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the face of federal prosecution over its role in the Enron scandal. As a scathing USA Today editorial (4/8/02) explained it, Dobbs regularly featured “a one-sided array of pro-Andersen guests” on Moneyline and behaved “fawningly” during an interview with Andersen’s CEO. The problem, said USA Today, wasn’t Dobbs’ polemics, but his failure to disclose that Andersen had for years paid him “substantial fees for speaking engagements,” sponsored an old CNN show of his, Business Unusual, and served as the auditor for Space Holdings, the company that runs Space.com, Inc., “of which Dobbs is part owner and ‘non-executive chairman.’”
After mainstream articles appeared suggesting a conflict of interest, Dobbs disclosed his ties to Andersen on Moneyline, but maintained that such disclosure was unnecessary since “Space Holdings pays Andersen, not the other way around” (New York Times, 4/4/02).
- New York Post columnist Neal Travis (1/11/02) cited “widespread” rumors that Time magazine’s original choice for their 2001 person-of-the-year cover was Osama bin Laden — until Wal-Mart intervened. “I’m told by very reliable sources,” wrote Travis, that when Wal-Mart executives heard of the bin Laden choice, they “decided to flex their red-white-and-blue muscles” and “told Time honchos that if bin Laden was on the cover in any kind of laudatory position, their stores would refuse to stock that edition.” (Time’s person-of-the-year pick is not necessarily “laudatory”; it’s meant to highlight the year’s biggest news-maker — as with Adolf Hitler in 1938.) In the end, Time featured Rudy Giuliani. Travis noted that some Time staffers suggested that “in the days before AOL and the days before Warner, anyone trying such coercion on Time-Life would have been tossed out the window.”
Wal-Mart gave contradictory answers when asked for comment; spokesperson Tom Williams told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (1/17/02) that the rumors were untrue, while spokesperson Jay Allen refused to confirm or deny them, saying that “you could read that [silence] as you choose.” Allen did, however, acknowledge that “if Osama bin Laden had been on the cover of that magazine, we would not have liked it and would have evaluated how our customers feel before selling it.”
- The San Antonio Express-News reported (5/10/02) that the nightly news on San Antonio TV station KENS aired what was essentially an infomercial for a brand of wrinkle cream sold locally by a KENS employee. The spot, which was also re-aired during sweeps week as part of a “special” on beauty, reportedly featured “a half-dozen or more funny, likable women” gathered in a living room extolling the virtues of the new cream and trying it out. The segment closed with KENS anchorwoman Sarah Lucero assuring viewers of the product’s safety and giving the phone number for purchasing it.
All the information about the cream was provided by Jennifer McCabe, the salesperson on the segment who was identified only as a “distributor.” As the Express-News pointed out, however, McCabe is also a “producer/director in commercial production” for KENS, and the fiancée of KENS news executive producer, Ian Monroe.
Remarkably, none of the KENS staffers quoted by the Express-News exhibited discomfort with the arrangement. The affianced executive producer, Monroe, said that he had recused himself from the story, and the station’s news director, Tom Doerr, told the paper that he saw no ethical problem with using a news segment to push a station employee’s business, nor with the segment’s unabashed promotion of the cream. “It’s just one of the gimmicky things out there that appeal to the desire to look better,” he said.
- In perhaps the most depressing editorial of the year, the Alabama Selma Times-Journal (3/7/02) affirmed that because “there is no greater goal for the management of the Times-Journal than to see Selma and Dallas County succeed,” the paper would not report details of a proposed Hyundai manufacturing plant that might come to town. The plant could bring jobs, said the paper, so stories about the venture should remain vague, lest they frighten off the corporate benefactor.
“Big companies do not like pressure . . . and they sure don’t like ordinary citizens like us telling them they better move to our community,” wrote the Times-Journal. “When media get involved, when members of the press ask questions and get pushy about details, big companies get angry. They ask media to leave them alone. They ask state officials to stay quiet. And if state officials know what’s best, they do stay quiet.” Arguing that an excess of press coverage had stopped Hyundai from opening a plant in Mississippi, the paper concluded, “we can’t let that happen to us. So for now, we’ll remain quiet on Hyundai, just like every other media organization in Alabama should do.”
Government and Other “Official” Pressure
Like any government rallying a country for war, the Bush administration is engaged in a massive propaganda campaign. That the war is a vaguely defined, open-ended “war on terror” creates holes that images and “messages” must fill. In such circumstances, the press corps have a special duty to maintain independence, to question official pronouncements, and to inform the public as thoroughly as possible about policies being carried out in their name. With some notable exceptions, U.S. corporate media have not taken up the charge, appearing to see their role as supporting the government at the expense of wide debate and fair treatment of dissent.
- In January, a few months after the September 11 attacks, NBC’s Tom Brokaw got special access to the White House for a news special called “Inside the Real West Wing” (which aired, neatly, just before NBC’s fictional West Wing drama). Although the presidential schedule was tailored for the taping for maximum PR value, Brokaw insisted that the special was “not an infomercial for the White House” (New York Times, 1/23/02). Yet he told the Washington Post (1/21/02) that part of the reason NBC got such extensive access was that the administration was “concerned about the public drifting away from the mission of the war,” and “this was an opportunity for them to kick-start it, to keep the country refocused.” Apparently, Bush agreed. The Post reported that at one point during the day, the president remarked that “while he has to keep the country’s attention on the war against terrorism, it’s also ‘part of Mr. Brokaw’s job.’”
- The Voice of America is a broadcasting agency that, until a few years ago, was managed by the U.S. State Department. Though the VOA is now overseen by a board of directors, the government’s control over the operation was made clear in February.
In September of 2001, VOA reporter Spozhmai Maiwandi landed what many would consider a real scoop: an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The interview was one of the last conducted with Omar. Though his comments were included in a report with an official from the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance and an academic from Georgetown University, the report was “put on hold amid criticism from State Department officials” (Chicago Tribune, 2/6/02).
The report eventually aired. Maiwandi, meanwhile, was reassigned to what VOA’s news director Andre de Nesnera told the Tribune is a “useless job.”
- In his book Fallout, New York Daily News reporter Juan González recounts the difficulties he encountered at the paper while investigating the environmental consequences of the World Trade Center disaster. While most mainstream media were uncritically repeating the assurances of officials, Gonzalez was breaking stories about toxins in lower Manhattan that far exceeded safety levels. The backlash was intense; complaints about González came rolling in from one of Rudolph Giuliani’s deputy mayors, the head of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, and EPA administrator Christine Whitman.
Subsequently, Daily News editors “showed a marked reluctance” to pursue the story. “One courageous editor at the News, however, refused to buckle under the pressure,” writes González. Metropolitan editor Richard T. Pienciak encouraged his reporting and “assigned a special four-person team of reporters to take a closer look” at the health impact in lower Manhattan. But “within days of forming the team,” Pienciak “was removed from his post without explanation” and the new team was dissolved. Though Pienciak was not fired, he was essentially demoted from editor to an enterprise reporter for the paper’s Sunday edition.
- While we like to think of journalists and media outlets as independent truth-seekers, there are times when specific information is withheld from the public because of government pressure. Boston TV station WBZ-TV had been investigating local software company Ptech, which is said to be financed by a Saudi man who allegedly donated money to Al Qaeda.
Before federal authorities raided Ptech’s Quincy, Massachusetts offices in early December, they requested that journalists looking into the matter refrain from reporting about the investigation until after they had conducted the raid. WBZ complied with the request, along with eight other media outlets, according to the Washington Post (12/7/02). WBZ news director Peter Brown explained to the Boston Globe (12/7/02) that the station was happy to comply: “Frankly, there wasn’t a great deal of internal debate. I’m very conservative. I believe we have a role to play as citizens.”
WBZ appeared to think that it was getting some kind of quid pro quo from the government by holding back on the story. As station reporter Joe Bergantino told the Post, “We were promised that because we agreed to hold off, we would be told before the raid was held.” He added: “In the end that didn’t happen. We certainly were disappointed. We were lied to. It was an unsettling and disturbing development.”
- An article appearing in the November 10 Washington Post provided readers with a fleeting insight into the real relations between the media and the military. Headlined “War Plan For Iraq Is Ready, Say Officials; Quick Strikes, Huge Force Envisioned by Pentagon,” the Post report laid out what some government officials considered a likely battle plan for Iraq. The article relied almost exclusively on White House spin, noting that “the emerging U.S. approach tries to take into account regional sensitivities by attempting to inflict the minimum amount of damage deemed necessary to achieve the U.S. goals in a war.”
While the Post’s uncritical reliance on the official line is troubling enough, the paper adds this disclaimer: “This article was discussed extensively in recent days with several senior civilian and military Defense Department officials. At their request, several aspects of the plan are being withheld from publication. Those aspects include the timing of certain military actions, the trigger points for other moves, some of the tactics being contemplated and the units that would execute some of the tactics.”
The story is almost entirely based on Pentagon officials, so it’s hard to imagine their objections. In fact, the propaganda value of the piece is not hidden: One unnamed official comments, “Discussing [the plan’s] broad outline would help inform the Arab world that the United States is making a determined effort to avoid attacking the Iraqi people.” The Post seemed content to provide that platform.
- “Until last year,” wrote Gwen Shaffer (CJR, 11-12/02), “I would have insisted public radio stations were immune from quid pro quos.” Shaffer was disabused of this notion by her experience as a reporter for Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, which during her tenure entered into a “partnership” with a nonprofit media company called GreenWorks. GreenWorks, as she eventually discovered, received money from ICF Consulting, a PR firm working for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection; the group in turn gave money to WHYY, to pay the salaries of two reporters and a researcher who would work on environmental stories. Though originally assured that all editorial decisions would be made by the station, Shaffer soon learned otherwise, as GreenWorks’ executive producer took part in weekly story meetings. The producer urged her and her colleague to “cover ‘positive’ stories of dubious merit,” she says, including reports on specific DEP-funded projects, and chastised them for covering controversial issues like oil drilling in the Allegheny National Forest. Shaffer was fired after six months at the station.
WHYY news director Bill Fantini insisted (CJR, 11-12/02) that there was a “firewall” between GreenWorks and the station; but he nonetheless resigned after Shaffer’s allegations came to light, and WHYY ended its arrangement with the company.
In a troubling coda to the story, WHYY aired a discussion on the problems of “grant-funded journalism” on the show Radio Times on December 17, but it didn’t discuss the station’s own controversy, and callers were not allowed to bring it up (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/19/02). Explained Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane, “We decided the show we would do would be slightly at arm’s length.” (FAIR was asked to participate in the program, but was not contacted again after a lengthy pre-interview.)
- While voters benefit from substantive questioning of those running for public office, the candidates themselves aren’t always so keen on it. Alaskan Republican state senator David Donley apparently bridled at questions from Rhonda McBride, moderator for a series of pre-election candidate debates called “Running” on Alaska public TV station KAKM. In a discussion of Donley’s record on education, McBride referred to concerns of inequity in the funding of Alaska’s rural schools (CJR, 11-12/02). Donley complained to the station’s general manager and—perhaps because he is co-chair of the finance committee that determines KAKM’s funding — his complaints were heard. McBride was told to “tone down her questions,” and a few days later the station removed her as moderator, citing disagreements “about the direction the program would take.” She subsequently resigned.
- Officials’ involvement in journalism is a problem at all levels of government. In July, two of the three full-time employees of the Alabama-based Northport Gazette resigned in protest over the paper’s hiring of a town councilmember to cover town council meetings. According to the Tuscaloosa News (7/5/02), the councilmember, David Allison, was hired to write for both the Northport Gazette and its parent paper, the West Alabama Gazette, by publisher Barbara Bobo, who is also mayor of a local town, Millport. Bobo brushed away conflict-of-interest concerns, asserting that overlap between newsmakers and news reporters is a “fact of small-town life.” She cited herself as an example. Apparently, Bobo covers the town that she is mayor of for the newspapers she publishes: “I write [Millport’s] news. I don’t have a reporter there” (Tuscaloosa News, 7/9/02). Not to worry — Mayor-Publisher Bobo told the Tuscaloosa News that managing her various jobs isn’t so tough because “it’s not like there’s a whole lot going on.”