Encroachment without apology
“Fear and favor” describes the various pushes and pulls on journalists to use something other than journalistic values in producing the news.
The intense corporatization of media makes the precise contours of such compromise difficult to trace. Pressure to cut costs and please financially powerful players is, as it were, “in the air” in corporate America; who can say how far into the journalistic process such budgetary concerns intrude?
Ad salespeople drumming up sponsors for an upcoming story in the Ft. Myers, Fla., News-Press will be accompanied on sales calls by the reporter, reports the Washington Post (12/4/06): “The logic: The reporter understands the project and can explain it best to potential advertisers.” Keeping reporters away from the business side of the paper is “old-school snobbery,” says News-Press managing editor Mackenzie Warren.
There is, then, the question of how long we can speak of the “encroachment” of non-journalistic values, when journalistic outlets themselves seek out situations they ought to avoid, and relationships that ought to be eschewed are instead institutionalized without apology, as with Los Angeles Univision station KMEX’s “partnership” with healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente Southern California. The deal goes well beyond a single segment: Kaiser physicians are interviewed on a range of topics on the KMEX’s various news programs, news footage is shot at Kaiser facilities, and news segments feature Kaiser patients and support groups (Hollywood Reporter, 3/16/06).
A Univision spokesperson describes the Kaiser deal as “a win-win for both of us.” The “us,” it must be noted, does not include the viewers, since the paid-for plugs, dubbed “integrations,” are not disclosed as such. “Typically news isn’t for sale because you need to maintain your integrity,” she continued. “However, you also need to be creative to find ways to include your advertisers without damaging your credibility.”
If following up a basic credo of journalism with “however” is a sign of the times, it isn’t the whole story. Some journalists seem to find the slope less slippery than others. When Scripps Howard News Service discovered that one of their columnists, Michael Fumento, had received payments from Monsanto, the subject of frequent, glowing praise in Fumento’s writings, they severed their relationship with him. A January 13 statement explained (Business Week, 1/13/04): Fumento “did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson [Institute, where Fumento is a senior fellow] received a $60,000 grant from Monsanto. Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.” Seems simple enough.
As always, we note that our list is, sadly, far from comprehensive.
In Advertisers We Trust
* Wal-Mart’s trumpeting of a new policy extending employees a 10 percent discount on a single item during the holidays (“beyond the normal 10 percent employee discount,” as the New York Times (12/4/06) helpfully explained) struck James Murren, columnist at the Hanover, Penn. Evening Sun, funny. “Are you kidding me? Next to Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart is the biggest profit making company in the world, and their 1.3 million employees only get 10 percent off that Made in China thingy-ma-bob?” Murren wrote in a December 10 column headlined, “Shaft Your Workers, Gag Your Critics: Wal-Mart’s Holiday Cheer.” The column was Murren’s last for the paper.
“One column critical of Wal-Mart in my 10 years and the editor with no backbone submits to them,” Murren told CounterPunch (12/19/06). Readers were given no explanation for his disappearance from the paper.
* “We essentially let the government of Australia become our news directors.” That was the description of one “appalled” staffer, who “declined to be named, fearing retribution,” of Bay Area TV station KRON’s “Australia Week,” a five-day production in which 3 hours of the station’s five-hour morning newscast were converted, essentially, to a travel brochure. KRON reporters, their travel, food and lodging all paid for by Tourism Australia, produced segments promoting the glories of, for example, seeing Sydney by hot-air balloon, or shopping for Australian fish. One segment was simply a sit-down with an Australian tourism official.
The deal may have appalled some reporters, but it was increasingly par for the course at KRON, where so-called integration deals have proliferated since the station was bought by Young Broadcasting six years ago. In that time, a station once known for a “deep bench of reporting talent, in-depth stories and documentaries” (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/5/06), has been host to the likes of February 2006’s “Spa Spectacular,” in which featured spas all paid a fee in addition to buying ads, and station anchors hawked spa coupons at the end of each segment.
It’s easy to cringe at the rationalizations of KRON general manager Mark Antonitis, who appears to have a coined a new term, the “win-win-win,” to describe such arrangements. “We bring on people all the time to talk about books, products and interesting new ideas anyway,” Antonitis told Hollywood Reporter (3/16/06). “So if we can have the added benefit of a new revenue source and give something to our viewers that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise and advertisers get their products advertised, it’s a win-win-win.”
Less humorous is his contention that such deals are the lesser of two evils: “I really don’t like to lay people off, and there are lots of families that are counting on me to protect them from the ups and downs of the economic cycle.”
* WTVH news anchor Maureen Green saw no problem with serving as “tour host” on a 10-day Hawaii trip, organized by a Wisconsin company that charges up to $4,499 per person (Syracuse Post Standard, 3/13/06CHK): “It’s not a sales vehicle as far as I’m concerned.” Others disagree, citing the fact that Green’s travel costs, and those of her son who accompanied her, were paid by the company, which promoted the tour heavily on WTVH. Green’s general manager shares her view that conflict of interest is all a matter of how you feel. “I think it’s ridiculous for anyone to think someone would lose their journalistic objectivity for being on a trip for 10 days,” charged Les Vann, who acknowledged that the station also received “some financial benefit” from the tour company, while declining to provide details.
* What do you call it when a TV news program accepts free “deluxe guest rooms” from a hotel for its anchors (wine and chocolate included) in exchange for broadcasting its show from the hotel?
“That would be like a trade, I guess,” was how Carolyn Aguayo, spokesperson for Los Angeles station KTLA, put it in the Pasadena Star-News (2/28/06).
That “trade” meant that viewers of KTLA‘s Morning News program on February 23 were regaled with details of the amenities to be found at Pasadena’s newly renovated Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel; they were treated to interviews with the hotel’s general manager, and with its chef, who prepared braised shortribs on air. Viewers were not, however, treated with the information that the news program had done the segment in exchange for free accommodation and goodies.
That non-disclosure didn’t jibe so well with the statement of Morning News executive producer Rich Goldner in the L.A. Times (3/1/06): “We’re not trying to hide anything here, and the viewer knows that.”
Goldner told the Times (which, like KTLA, is owned by the Tribune Company) that “the important thing to remember here is that we are always in control of the content.”
But for those not consoled to learn that a news program needs no inducement for this sort of PR-driven fare, Goldner offered another, seemingly contradictory, explanation: “People often come to us with these things. We don’t go to them.” Whichever it is, with such a slippery grasp of conflicts of interest, Goldner’s most confusing remark may have been when he declared: “If there’s something we don’t like or feel is inappropriate, we won’t put it on the air…. We’re a news show.”
* When San Francisco, a prize-winning magazine that began 40 years ago as San Francisco Focus, was bought by Modern Luxury Media, a publisher more devoted to style than substance, there were doubters. “Combining investigative journalism and lifestyles of the rich and famous is an oxymoron,” magazine industry analyst Samir Husni told the San Francisco Chronicle (11/20/05). “Sooner or later, they are going to find themselves in conflict.”
Make that sooner. In January 2006, the new San Francisco killed a story just before publication, apparently out of fear of offending an advertiser (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/13/06). Modern Luxury CEO Michael Kong refused comment, but San Francisco’s editor and executive editor unhappily confirmed the spiking of freelancer Peter Byrne’s report on sexual harassment lawsuits against the Sacramento-area Thunder Valley casino. San Francisco president Steven Dunkenspiel explained that “multiple factors come into play” in such decisions, but declined to say whether the full-page ad in the magazine’s December issue for Red Rock Resort, owned like Thunder Valley by the Station Casinos chain, represented one of those factors.
A former editor of San Francisco Focus was unamused. “I don’t think of myself as the Lone Ranger,” John Burks, now chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, told the Chronicle. “But if you’re going to do that, why do journalism? Why not just put out catalogs?”
Powerful Players (& PR)
* News staffers at Atlanta’s WGCL (CBS-46) say that, after a heated exchange between one of their reporters and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Perdue aide threatened to withhold $500,000 in campaign advertising if footage of the incident aired (Creative Loafing, 12/13/06). WGCL reporter Wendy Saltzman had repeatedly confronted the governor about a policy that has removed about 2,200 severely ill children from Georgia’s Medicaid program. Responding to her persistent inquiries at a press conference, Perdue told Saltzman, “We’ve addressed that with you, and I think probably from the way you’ve approached this subject you might want to think about some other markets like Chattanooga and Columbia and Tallahassee.”
It was after that that WGCL staffers say Perdue’s office mentioned pulling advertising. Perdue’s then-chief of staff, John Watson, denied any threat but confirmed that he spoke to the station’s general manager and news director, to “register our disgruntlement about [Saltzman]” who had “invaded the governor’s space.”
In any event, Perdue’s testy outburst did not air, nor did Saltzman’s planned follow-up segments on the Medicaid story. “Wendy was told,” claimed one staffer, “that we could lose more money than the station spends on investigative reporting.”
* The Sacramento Bee describes Jeff Kagan as “an independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta” (12/21/06)–as do the Detroit Free Press (11/1/06), Chicago Daily Herald (7/17/06), Philadelphia Inquirer (4/21/06), Denver Post (4/17/06), Rocky Mountain News (2/15/06) Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger (2/12/06) and
Washington Times (1/6/06).
Kagan does live in Atlanta and is an analyst, but independent? Not so much. Actually, Kagan receives a fee (reportedly typically $10,000 a month) from companies like Sprint and Bell South to speak to the media about them and their industry. These outlets “rarely if ever mention the financial ties,” reported the New York Post’s Tim Arango (5/3/06), who included his own paper among those citing Kagan’s “expertise” minus the information his own website boasts prominently: “Kagan is a ‘fee-based’ analyst.”
For his part, Kagan says reporters sometimes ask whether he has an “investment relationship” with the companies he talks about, but virtually never inquire if he’s actually on the payroll.
*When your computer crashes, you get it fixed, end of story. But for David Pogue, New York Times online tech columnist and a contributor to CBS News, his hard drive crash was just the start of the story–several stories, in fact, that Pogue wrote for NPR, the New York Times and CBS, featuring DriveSavers, the company that retrieved his data. DriveSavers, for its part, waived Pogue’s $2,000 bill. Such a deal is, fairly obviously, a no-no, and was labeled as such by SF Weekly’s Matt Smith in a widely circulated piece (3/15/06), leading to a rare on-air apology from CBS’s Charles Osgood (3/12/06).
Many might be chagrined, but Pogue went on to claim (SF Weekly, 4/5/06) that CBS knew about the trade in advance. A CBS spokesperson begged to differ, as did the New York Times representative, asked about Pogue’s contention that “the Times has no policy on services. I can send you copies of the ethical guidelines, and there’s absolutely no reference to what to do about reviewing services.” “David Pogue had apparently misunderstood the policy,” countered the Times‘ Diane McNulty. “And his editor told him so.”
The Boss’ Business
* “A poster child for the evils of corporate synergy” is how Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Phoenix (5/3/06) described a Boston Globe front pager hyping a “VIP travel package” offered by Globe corporate sibling the Boston Red Sox. Filled with photos and straight-from-the-press-release lines like “the biggest selling point is perhaps the Sox access to players,” the piece merely masqueraded as a news story, Jurkowitz wrote. And, he added, “the story’s disclosure of the New York Times Company‘s 17 percent interest in the ballclub in the 15th paragraph on the jump page doesn’t cut the mustard as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
* Readers of the Miami Herald may have wondered why the paper appeared so fascinated by the story of P.,* a local businessman and civic leader who fell from grace with a January 2006 arrest for drug possession. The story was newsworthy, certainly, but the Herald’s focus (a series of prominent reports (1=4/06) culminating in a lengthy profile replete with embarrassing details about P.’s private life) struck some as a bit obsessive (CJR, 7=8/06). Among those taking note, evidently, were P.’s lawyers; it may have been their efforts that resulted in the paper running a “disclosure” (4/9/06) letting readers in on the fact that Knight Ridder, the Miami Herald’s parent, was involved in an ongoing and bitter dispute with P. over a failed business partnership.
* “A suggestion for Fox 5: Why not just put Jack Bauer in the anchor’s chair?” That was one commentator’s exasperated conclusion (CJR Daily, 3/29/06) after monitoring the New York City Fox affiliate’s incessant promotion of the show “24” –aired, perhaps needless to say, on the Fox network.
One newscast (3/29/06) began with an announcer intoning: “Next. It’s “24”’s secret weapon. It’s not the dialogue or the surprising plot twists. The one thing you see on “24” that you don’t see on most other shows.” Minutes into the broadcast, viewers got another tease from the entertainment reporter (“We can’t get enough of it because “24” dares to do what no other network show will”) before the newscast’s anchors asked viewers to “Sound Off” on the pressing question: “What do you think is the real secret weapon on “24” that makes the show such a success?”
Another broadcast promised to probe “the real reason “24” is better than ever, next at 10,” though viewers were actually forced to endure more teases, as well as some actual news, before reporter Toni Senecal’s report, 43 minutes after the hour, exploring the “lots of reasons the show is such a huge success.” Non-stop, unapologetic flackery from network affiliates apparently did not make the list.
* Columbia Journalism Review (5=6/06) offered a critical “dart” to Variety, for leaving something out of their “full-throated” review of the Hollywood remake of the movie Fun With Dick and Jane: namely, the fact that Peter Bart, the trade magazine’s editor in chief, was a producer of both the new film and the original. Headlined the media review: “Impart Bart’s Part in Art, Sez Dart.”
* Geoff Dougherty says he got into journalism “because it seemed like a good way to raise hell.” (Chi-Town Daily News, 2/7/06) That goal was evidently not appreciated by Dougherty’s bosses at the Chicago Tribune, where he worked as a reporter until 2005, or more precisely, until he wrote on article on CEO pay. “As I crunched the numbers,” he recalls, “it became apparent that [Tribune CEO Dennis] FitzSimons’ pay would figure prominently in the article. It seemed like an article we needed to publish, even if it would reflect negatively on the Tribune’s top exec.” Seemed to Dougherty, that is. Thirty-six hours before publication, Dougherty’s piece was killed without explanation, his follow-up questions gaining him nothing but “months of evasive corporate-speak.” Dougherty’s definition of journalism didn’t change, just his idea of where he could do it. He resigned from the paper and reported the story–of FitzSimons’ pay and of how the Tribune kept its readers from learning about it–for his own new website, the Chi-Town Daily News.
Frontiers of Free Enterprise
By definition, of course, advertisers are always involved in commercial news media. Still, new ways to involve advertisers are always being invented, and with each new technique, there are those who embrace it (with or without a show of resistance), and those for whom it is simply too much.
What about the idea of selling news stories by the word? A Wall Street Journal article (11/27/06) found mixed reactions to the proposal. Forbes.com said no, after finding “our editorial staff was very uncomfortable with the concept.” But FoxNews.com said, why not? So those reading a story on the site about, say, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert would find the word “speaker” double-underlined, and clicking on it would bring them an ad for the Ask.com search service, promising more information on “speakers.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was on board (“You have to try new things,” says the paper’s Internet VP, Hyde Post), as was Popular Mechanics–no matter that the results can be somewhat jarring, as when a story on “How to Survive a Riot” (5/04) included the sentence “stay away from the windows,” with the word “windows” serving double-duty as a plug for the Microsoft software program.
The fact that the news department doesn’t know which words are for sale means there’s “definitely a firewall there,” claimed a spokesperson for Fox (and Ask.com isn’t really an advertiser because they help people “find out more information about a topic”).
If in-text advertising has a hint of brave new world, another threat to the integrity of online journalism is more familiar, and potentially more ominous. Google, the ubiquitous search engine, has found a way to satisfy the perennial desire of sponsors to control the context in which their ads appear, and specifically to avoid running ads next to controversial content.
Google‘s AdSense service, which places ads on thousands of websites and blogs, has become a significant source of revenue for some online outlets. Advertisers appreciate the service’s ability to match up ads with related content (airline ads with travel stories, etc.), but, just as in other media, there are some stories they literally don’t want to get near. In 2003, in response to advertisers’ concerns, Google developed “sensitivity filters” that scan partner sites for “unacceptable” material; ads found near content deemed offensive are replaced with public service announcements, and the site loses the revenue.
According to Chris Thompson of East Bay Express (“Publishers vs. the Censorbot,” 8/2/06), the effect has been felt at a range of outlets: Salon found themselves seeking other “partners” after Google pulled ads from stories on British attitudes toward rape victims and a Senate hearing on pornography, while the one-person blog SilflayHraka.com lost all its Google ads the day its host posted a message headlined “Have You Boycotted Sony Products Yet?”
Most serious is the potential effect on smaller news sites. Thompson interviewed a publisher from “a prominent news website” who would only speak anonymously. When his site ran a series of stories about a major bombing in Iraq, the source claims, the Google ads disappeared within hours: “They said we had the word ‘kill’ on our site, and that killed the ads.” Complaining that as a news site they could hardly avoid such topics, the publisher says he was told, “Those are the rules.” Google accounts for a third of the site’s revenue.
Google would not provide a list of “forbidden” words. Spokesperson Shuman Ghosemajumder told Thompson, “We’re not trying to create very specific rules so much as we’re trying to determine, ‘What is the topic of a particular story such that viewers would have a negative reaction?'” In the end, Thompson noted, Ghosemajumder acknowledged that “some stories may be too unpleasant to be paired with paying advertisers.”
* The name of the individual has been removed following the Herald’s removal of the articles from its online archives.