It’s no secret that advertisers, media owners and powerful political figures pressure journalists to ignore critical stories or sing the praises of a corporate pet project. With diminished journalistic resources available due to corporate cost-cutting in the media industry, news outlets often put commercial or political priorities ahead of journalistic ones.
Each year, FAIR puts together a collection of specific incidents of interference, in order to provide real-world illustration of the pressures on working journalists, and to encourage the exposure of such efforts to muzzle journalists and shape media coverage. This report is nowhere near an exhaustive recounting of all such abuses in the past year, but it does illuminate some of the critical threats facing independent journalism.
In Advertisers We Trust
In commercial media, advertisers have enormous influence over what appears in print or over the airwaves. Advertisers pay the bills—that’s a lesson publishers and other media decision-makers know all too well.
When war with Iraq began to seem imminent, media companies fretted over how to “serve” their advertisers, who worried that news about death and battle wouldn’t put their consumers in a shopping mood. U.S. News & World Report’s solution, as reported by MediaWeek (2/24/03): If the U.S. went to war, the magazine would “create a new war-free zone in which buyers can be assured their ads are next to less-traumatic fare, including stories on health, science, business and culture.” The section, called “Second Front,” soon appeared, giving the magazine a safe place to sell products amidst commercially friendly content.
That urge to please advertisers with news content is pervasive in commercial media. But several cases in 2003 went beyond suppressing or even altering stories at an advertiser’s behest: At some outlets, the news itself was simply put up for sale.
“Synergy was on display on CNN Headline News last night, big time,” wrote Frank Barnako of CBS’s MarketWatch.com (5/9/03). Barnako watched a segment about last-minute Mother’s Day gifts reported by someone with a peculiar on-screen identification: “Regina Lewis, AOL.” As Barnako put it, “instead of reporting, Lewis shilled for AOL advertisers on the company’s news outlet.” The gift ideas all came, coincidentally, courtesy of prominent AOL advertisers like 1-800-Flowers and Diamond.com. Corporations looking to advertise with AOL must value the free exposure: paid ads on the AOL Internet service and free plugs on the cable channel it owns.
When AOL purchased $15 million in advertising from Viacom’s Infinity Radio, it received quite a bit more. According to internal memos obtained by Detroit’s Metro Times (6/11/03), the deal required newscasters at Infinity stations to promote AOL’s broadband Internet service on the air. The casual mentions were not supposed to sound like ads; as a memo to the staff of WWJ, a station on Infinity Radio put it, “You are being asked to use AOL for broadband every day while you are on the air and make reference to the interesting content you find there.”
According to Metro Times, the station’s on-air hosts were expected to log six AOL mentions every day. A follow-up in Advertising Age (6/16/03) found that other Infinity stations in St. Louis and Chicago were also part of the promotional arrangement.
The WWJ memo included this bizarre guidance: “While AOL would LOVE us to be ‘evangelists’ for their product, do stay close to your comfort zone when it comes to promoting material. Don’t do anything that makes you feel queasy from an ethical standpoint.” (There was no word on what radio hosts should do if the whole idea of disguising advertising as news content made them queasy.) Another memo cited by Metro Times, from WWJ operations manager Georgeann Herbert, had a quite different tone: “Don’t forget those AOL for Broadband mentions! And no . . . saying something is ‘sponsored by AOL for Broadband’ doesn’t satisfy the requirement.”
Once the Metro Times (6/11/03) began investigating the story, the station indicated that its news division was not going to play along and plug the Internet service. Other Infinity stations seemed to agree: “We’ll protect the integrity of WBZ ,” said one station official in Boston (Boston Globe, 6/19/03), where the spots would run apart from the news programming.
The Pioneer Press, a division of Hollinger International, publishes dozens of papers in the suburbs of Chicago. But the newspaper company made news outside the area in August when veteran arts and entertainment editor Virginia Gerst abruptly resigned from the company.
The trouble started on May 8, when Gerst’s section ran a critical review of a restaurant that happened to be an advertiser. Her superiors weren’t happy; in Gerst’s words, she was reminded that the Press was “not in the business of bashing business” (Chicago Reader, 9/5/03). Weeks later, Gerst was handed a new review of the same restaurant; this one was decidedly more upbeat, written not by a normal news staffer but by someone in the Pioneer Press marketing division.
The NBC TV affiliate WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi announced the sale of two-and-a-half-minute news segments for a “weekly investment of $500.” WLBT station manager Dan Modisett told the Washington Post (11/3/03) that the station was abandoning the program — not because it was unethical, but because “it was too much effort for really not enough financial gain.” A month earlier (10/16/03), the Post reported that another NBC affiliate — WFLA in Tampa, Florida — was charging for segments on its morning show, which is technically not part of the news division.
Such distinctions are often obscure to news audiences. As Editor & Publisher noted (11/19/03), “custom publishing” allows newspapers to print special sections that cater to certain advertisers. According to an editor at the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register, “the sections sell advertising to local businesses and create stories by their own staff writers, often primarily using advertisers as prime sources, with some stories running next to the source’s ad.” An unusual arrangement that can also be a deceptive one, since E&P found that “a number of the Register’s special sections, however, have had nothing that explicitly identified them as an advertising product. A line at the top of the front page simply reads: ‘A Des Moines Register Custom Publication.’”
A Florida company called WJMK exploits the blurring of news and commerce by producing “news breaks” that appear on public television stations (New York Times, 5/7/03). The segments have been hosted by prominent journalists like CNN anchor Aaron Brown and former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite—who fail to tell viewers that WJMK is producing these “news” spots on behalf of healthcare companies.
According to the Times, the hosts “provide a general introduction to segments that profile healthcare companies or their products. According to WJMK documents, the companies pay WJMK about $15,000 in connection with the segments and other services and are allowed to edit and approve the videos, which are two to five minutes long.”
Some of the segments are presented under the title “The American Medical Review,” and a WJMK official told the Times that 30 million households see each one, thanks to public TV. While some stations were careful to steer clear of the promotional tapes, others told the Times that they were content to air the segments because they were free. The Times also noted that “the videos do not mention that the companies paid WJMK to produce them—which may violate federal communications law.”
After this arrangement garnered some media attention, some of the journalists involved suddenly had second thoughts. Cronkite and Brown ended their relationships with WJMK in May (New York Times, 5/9/03).
The “public affairs programming” heard by millions of passengers on airlines like American, United, Delta and Northwest is produced by a company called Sky Radio . The programming appears just after a block of straight news from NPR and other outlets. But the nature of Sky Radio ’s programming was revealed (New York Times, 10/27/03) when producers called up Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, and asked if she would discuss tort reform on a “talkshow.” When she said yes, she was told it would cost her $5,900.
Paying a fee to be interviewed should be no big deal, explained Sky Radio producers: Announcers disclose every now and again that guests “may have paid a fee,” and besides, they charge everyone—whether they represent British Petroleum or McDonald’s. In order to be interviewed without paying, said Sky founder Marc Holland, “You have to be a president. You have to be a secretary of state. You’d have to be huge. Or you’d have to have influence with us. It’s a gift.” So next time you’re listening to what sounds like a news interview on airline radio—just think, for several thousand dollars, that could be you.
The Boss’s Business
Some reporters at the New York Post are said to refer to page 2 of the paper as the “Pravda page” — “reserved for news of owner Rupert Murdoch’s business and political interests” (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , 6/03). While Murdoch may be a particularly “hands-on” media mogul, he’s far from the only owner who has discovered how useful a media outlet can be in promoting one’s own personal interests.
The Federal Communications Commission’s 2003 deregulation—which offered big media companies even bigger shares of the public airwaves, and invited newspaper and television companies to merge—was one of the biggest industry-related stories of the year. But reporting a story with their own industry as its subject created some tension in corporate media.
Newspapers owned by companies looking to cash in on the FCC decision — like the Los Angeles Times (5/16/03) and the Chicago Tribune (3/9/03), both owned by Tribune Co. — editorialized in favor of relaxing the restrictions on their owner. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a news outlet’s editorial positions be independent of owner interests, but what about the influence of those interests on what those outlets consider to be news?
The Arizona Republic is owned by Gannett, which also owns a TV station in Phoenix that it will have to sell if the FCC doesn’t change the rules about TV/newspaper cross-ownership. When FCC Commissioner Michael Copps came to Arizona to host a public forum about these changes, the Republic didn’t find the event worth mentioning to its readers. As the rival East Valley Tribune (4/10/03) put it, “Supporters of the rule change say that the integrity of news coverage would not be harmed by the rule change. Some even suggest the combined resources of a broadcast station and a newspaper would lead to better coverage. What does the absence of forum coverage in the Arizona Republic tell you?”
As the lines between news and advertising grow increasingly blurry, so crumbles the wall between media companies’ entertainment and news divisions. Last year saw a number of instances where news outlets were able to offer significant “extras” to pop stars in order to secure exclusive interviews.
Pop singer Britney Spears, for example, was set to do an interview with NBC, until ABC came along and reportedly promised a prime-time special, in addition to coverage on the network’s news programs (New York Post, 8/18/03).
This conforms to what one report suggested was a new push by ABC to secure more high-profile interviews by dangling extra promotional goodies. According to New York Magazine (7/28/03), “the news division has teamed with Entertainment Tonight to offer celebrities ET coverage if they agree to do exclusive sit-downs on Good Morning America, 20/20 or Primetime .”
The New York Times reported (1/21/04) that last year NBC offered representatives of singer Michael Jackson a remarkable deal: The network would pre-empt a one-hour Dateline program critical of the pop star that was set to air in February if Jackson would sit down for an interview and allow NBC access to some of his video tapes.
In an email published in the Times, NBC executive Marc Graboff offered $5 million for “exclusive rights to the footage and the interview,” and assured the Jackson camp that the deal would “have the added benefit of pre-empting NBC’s planned broadcast of the one-hour Dateline scheduled for February 17.” The only detail that is in doubt is whether NBC was agreeing to permanently cancel the show, or simply postpone it for airing at a later date. NBC says it was only agreeing to postpone the show, but Jackson reps say the network was promising to kill the show altogether. When the $5 million deal fell through and Fox got the exclusive, Dateline, as if in retaliation, aired an extended, two-hour show critical of Jackson, labeled “Michael Jackson Unmasked.”
Florida’s St. Petersburg Times took a keen interest in an important civic debate: a referendum on whether a local airport would be kept intact or turned into a waterfront park development. According to the area’s alternative paper, the Weekly Planet (10/30/03), the Times editorially backed the development project without mentioning that the Times’ corporate parent, the Poynter Institute, would likely benefit from the project. As the Planet pointed out, the Poynter Institute owns much of the land near the proposed development—land that would presumably increase in value if the waterfront project was approved by voters. Journalistic notions of disclosure would seem to require the paper to reveal its interest. But Poynter president Karen Brown Dunlap doesn’t seem to think so, telling the Planet : “We own the Times and they have an obligation to report about us. Is this a story in itself? I don’t think so. Is there a specific story about how [the airport issue] affects Poynter? Maybe a little one.”
According to a survey by Planet reporter Jim Harper, the paper’s news coverage was skewed in the same direction as its editorial position. Harper notes that between April and September 2003, “the Times published seven news stories about the petition drive to close the airport and turn half of it into a public park. Admiring in tone, the stories emphasized the underdog nature of the campaign, often focusing on the idealistic young people who were gathering the signatures.” And the other side? “During the same period,” writes Harper, “the Times published just two stories about residents who want to see the airport appreciated for what it is: a unique asset in a city already blessed with abundant waterfront parks.”
It’s not unusual for newspapers to ignore or downplay citizen protests. But what about when the protest reaches the newsroom—literally? That’s what happened on November 6, when a labor rally ended up inside the newsroom of the Providence Journal . The rally was intended to pressure the paper’s management to resume negotiations with the Newspaper Guild, after a contract offer was rejected in June. The demonstrators, many from the Communications Workers of America, started outside the Journal ’s building, according to an account in the Providence Phoenix (11/14/03), before some demonstrators made their way into the Journal ’s newsroom, to the astonishment of many of the paper’s staffers.
The Phoenix also pointed out that there was one place you weren’t able to read about the protest: the Providence Journal , which failed to include any mention of the labor action. Phoenix reporter Ian Donnis wasn’t surprised: “In the almost four years that members of the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 400 workers at the Journal , have been working without a contract, the ProJo has barely covered the ongoing union-management fight.” That’s not to say the paper is reticent about reporting on its corporate parent, the Dallas-based Belo Corporation; Donnis told the Phoenix that the paper occasionally “puts a corporate-friendly spin on the news—using a photo of Belo CEO Robert Decherd, for example, to illustrate an October 30 business-front story on a rebound in media advertising.”
Powerful Players & PR
While advertisers and media owners have direct means of influencing coverage, they’re certainly not the only ones. Powerful institutions can find ways to shape coverage to suit corporate or other agendas—sometimes thanks to the willing participation of journalists who should know to avoid such conflicts of interest.
The San Francisco Chronicle (2/23/03) reported that local KTVU news anchor Ross McGowan had more than time invested in then-City Supervisor Gavin Newsom, whom he interviewed 84 times over five years on the Fox affiliate’s Mornings on Two show. McGowan also had $25,000 in a business partnership with Newsom, who owns several restaurants, bars and wine shops in the Bay Area. McGowan maintained that the business relationship didn’t affect his coverage of Newsom, who chatted on the air with McGowan about a wide range of both political and personal fare, including his controversial “Care Not Cash” homeless reform program and his mayoral campaign, which he eventually won in a close runoff election. “If Gavin was doing something that needed the tough questions, I like to think I’d ask him,” McGowan said. Under pressure from his editor, McGowan sold his stake in the partnership days after the story broke (AJR , 6-7/03).
Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, brought attorney Mike Papantonio on his August 29 show to expose the “Rat of the Week” — a company called Osmose whose arsenic-treated wood was used in playground equipment. Papantonio, a frequent guest on Scarborough Country, accused Osmose of having “figured out how to poison our children and make a profit in the meantime.” Scarborough encouraged viewers to contact the EPA and demand an immediate recall of the wood in question, which the agency had scheduled to be phased out of production by January 2004.
What Scarborough neglected to mention was not only that Papantonio was his law partner, but that their firm had filed a lawsuit against Osmose. Ostensibly to balance things out, Scarborough invited Osmose representative Jim Hale on the show (9/9/03) to give his side of the story. When Hale pointed out Scarborough’s connection to both Papantonio and the Osmose lawsuit, Scarborough responded, “It may be shocking to you that Papantonio is my friend and law partner, but our audience has heard that a thousand times”—and immediately changed the subject away from the Osmose suit. On a later show (9/12/03), he admitted that he was a shareholder in the firm and received a fixed stipend, which he eventually agreed to give up. Scarbor-ough told viewers, “GE and NBC bend over backwards to preach and enforce integrity of their employees and our actions.”
U.S. News & World Report’s May 12 cover featured a picture of a military jet pilot performing a “Top Gun”-style stunt. The photo illustrated “A Day in the Life of the Military”—which was not so much a cover story as an eight-page photo spread taken from the book A Day in the Life of the United States Armed Forces. If readers thought it looked like a commercial for the Pentagon, they were close—at the very bottom of the second page of the spread, in white-on-grey lettering in the tiniest type imaginable, one could find, buried between the publisher and the copyright information, the phrase “The project underwriter is the Boeing Co.” That’s right: U.S. News published eight pages on the military that was sponsored by the nation’s second-largest military contractor—a company that makes, among other things, Navy jets like the one the pilot is flying on the cover of the magazine. Apparently a nearly invisible explanation is what passes for disclosure at U.S. News.
The New York Daily News reported (12/18/03) that “Toy Guy” Christo-pher Byrne, who for years has been interviewed about toy recommendations by news outlets around the country, is more than just a “toy expert” and the editor of a toy industry trade publication. As a paid representative of Litsky Public Relations, Byrne commands $5,000-$15,000 per product mention in a broadcast interview. “I have credibility,” said Byrne. “I won’t take a toy on TV that I haven’t played with, with kids.” You’d also be hard pressed to find Byrne on TV with a toy he hasn’t been paid to plug. Byrne acknowledged that in most of his interviews, he only mentions toys made by companies that pay him.
On Sacramento’s KXTV , popular news anchor Cristina Mendonsa could frequently be seen narrating a recurring spot that highlighted the off-court achievements of Sacramento’s WNBA team, the Monarchs. Only the news anchor wasn’t filing a standard news report: The segment was a promotional piece that ended by urging the audience to “come be a part of the 2003 Monarchs season” and displaying a phone number to call.
The Sacramento Bee reported (2/27/03) that KXTV ’s marketing staff wrote the promo, which the ABC affiliate says the Monarchs didn’t pay for. KXTV had recently signed a three-year deal with Maloof Sports, owner of both the Monarchs and the Sacramento Kings. “We want to be a good partner,” KXTV news director Ron Comings explains. “If it appears we’re getting a little too close to the commercial side, we’re probably OK with that.”
Government and Other “Official” Pressure
Reporters are normally wary of the appearance of government interference in the news—such influence is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “censorship.” But that’s not to say that journalists always steer clear of such conflicts.
The Denver Post (1/13/03) seemed to think that disclosing its special interview deal with an outgoing sheriff pre-empted any ethical questions. In an article on Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone just before he left office, Post reporter Kieran Nicholson noted that Stone “consented to be interviewed for this story only if his critics were not contacted.” Stone certainly has critics, as the article itself pointed out: The Columbine shootings happened in Jefferson County on his watch, and he has been accused of withholding information related to the incident. But, said Post editor Greg Moore (Westword , 1/23/03), “We wanted to close the book on his tenure from his perspective.” No doubt that’s what Stone wanted as well.
The Eastside Journal in Bellevue, Wash. took cutting deals with the sheriff’s office a step further and actually ran a false story at the office’s request. On March 23, 2002 the paper (now the King County Journal) ran a seven-sentence report about a “suspicious” house fire that had taken place the day before. The article pleased King County inmate Steven Sherer, who officials say had offered a former cellmate $17,000 to burn down the house while its occupants were at home. Sherer mailed his accomplice directions to the location of his reward—evidence that was used to bring charges against Sherer.
The problem with the arson story, as the paper revealed a year later (4/17/03), is that it never happened. Tipped off about Sherer’s plan, investigators staged the arson in order to produce the evidence they needed for their case. The paper, notified in advance by officials that Sherer wanted a newspaper clipping as proof that the arson had been carried out, agreed to cooperate by publishing the phony story.
“Journalistically, we’ll probably take some heat for it, but we have a responsibility to the community and that weighed heavily in our decision,” said Journal editor Tom Wolfe (Seattle Times, 4/18/03). As the newspaper took on the responsibility of protecting the community from criminals, it was left to the prosecutor’s office to take on the responsibility of championing journalistic integrity: “We would not have authorized it if we’d known,” said chief of staff Dan Satterberg (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/25/03). “It was not sensitive to the institutional role of the press. It just wasn’t appropriate. We don’t want the public to think we’ve changed the rules in our office.”
When the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau sent Gov. Linda Lingle to Japan to drum up tourism, they wanted news coverage back home. A trip to Japan can be expensive, but ABC affiliate KITV was happy to comply—because the government picked up the tab. The governor’s press secretary, Russell Pang, said the idea came from the station: “KITV called us originally,” Pang said. Speculation arose that the trip was KITV ’s reward for airing a 17-minute speech by the governor the previous week, a speech three other local TV news stations rejected, “judging it political rather than public service in nature” (Honolulu Advertiser , 7/10/03).
KITV agreed to pay its own way after Democratic lawmakers pointed out that accepting taxpayer money for television coverage of the governor raised ethical questions for both the station and the government. “We don’t think there’s a conflict of interest, but the perception of a conflict of interest is something we can’t live with,” station manager Mike Rosenberg said. At the same time, Rosenberg acknowledged, “Had we considered going on this trip originally, knowing the cost involved, I’m not sure [we would have gone]” (AP, 7/10/03).
Apparently KITV was not the first station to cozy up to the Hawaiian government: The Advertiser (10/26/03) reported that the Maui Visitor’s Bureau had paid KGMB-TV to fly to New York to cover Maui’s float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The former director of the MVB who oversaw the deal now serves as Governor Lingle’s tourism czar.
Reporting for a paper while serving as an elected official is generally considered to be inappropriate. But Bar Harbor Times staff writer Carrie Ciciotte’s position as city councilmember for the town of Ellsworth didn’t trouble the owners of the paper. In fact, Courier Publications decided that her “close ties to Ellsworth”—a small town near Bar Harbor—made her the ideal candidate to take over as associate editor of Courier’s Ellsworth Weekly , and she was offered that position with over a year remaining in her three-year council term (Bangor Daily News, 7/26/03). Fortunately, two weeks after accepting the Ellsworth Weekly job, Ciciotte announced her resignation from the council to “avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.” “I was concerned about a perception of bias,” Ciciotte said. “I couldn’t rationalize being both.”