Mar
01
2008

Fear & Favor 2007

How power still shapes the news

U.S. journalists seeking to fulfill the profession’s traditional goal of telling the truth and “letting the chips fall where they may” have powerful forces to contend with, starting with the corporate owners who employ them, and the corporate advertisers who fuel the enterprise, both of whom have an investment in maintaining a political conversation and climate favorable to their profitability. There are also legislators who maintain the pro-corporate policy media owners rely on to thrive, local political players with axes to grind, and well-funded PR campaigns from all corners. Each year these renew and refine their efforts to shape news media coverage—and public opinion—to suit their interests. Each year some journalists fight back, and some don’t.

Fear & Favor is by no means a comprehensive compilation of violations of journalistic ethics; indeed, most times people in the news business compromise their integrity, word never leaves the news room. But this sampling of what got out should encourage news audiences to maintain a critical attitude as we read and watch the news, not only about what might be left out of the story, but about what’s in it—and why.

In Advertisers We Trust

It’s been a while since commercial sponsors were happy with a 30-second spot; now it’s all about more “subtle” forms of encroachment into programming, the more unavoidable the better—product placement, “video news releases” (VNRs), tie-ins.

Sometimes these compromises seem simply inane: It’s hard to know what the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard was thinking when they ran an ad for the Sacred Heart Medical Center (10/29/07) whose graphic featured a bandaged index finger that “poked up” several inches beyond the ad’s margin into the news columns above. Other incidents seem less silly and more troubling.

“It doesn’t blur the line. It obliterates it,” stated Washington Post ombud Deborah Howell (Washington Post, 9/24/07). “It” was a six-page General Motors advertising supplement (9/20/07) in the paper that touted the automaker’s environmental credentials. Howell’s and many newsroom staffers’ problem: The section was filled with articles bearing bylines of Post writers, giving the appearance of a partnership between the paper and a company it covers. Executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s official justification was unsatisfying: Because the stories had been previously published, he told the Post’s Howard Kurtz (9/24/07), “we were not doing journalism specifically for this section.” But his response on the ethics of such editorial/advertising hybrids was priceless: “I’m not sure where the line is on that, and that’s why I agreed to go this far.”

GM’s successful charm offensive didn’t stop with the Washington Post. A cover story by Mary Connelly in the trade paper Automotive News (8/6/07) described how the company gave radio talkshow hosts free use of new cars and trucks in addition to buying ads during their shows. There’s no reason not to draw a straight line from that to, for example, Rush Limbaugh’s effusion to listeners: “Believe in General Motors, folks. They’re a classic American company doing it all.’’ As consumer advocate and longtime GM nemesis Ralph Nader pointed out (CounterSpin, 8/24/07), it “would be clearly illegal for disc jockeys to take freebies in order to promote certain songs. . . . I don’t see anything different when it comes to a product, like a GM car.”

Sam Mancuso, GM’s director of brand marketing alliances and operations, told Automotive News the company wooed hosts (of various ideological stripes, including liberals Ed Schultz and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity) because “radio personalities have unique relationships with their listeners. They make a real emotional connection. The audience knows they are being genuine.”

Glenn Beck hasn’t done much for CNN Headline News’ ratings, but he did snag the cable channel one first in 2007: In June and July, Beck delivered the channel’s first ever on-air plugs for a sponsor, Select Comfort mattresses. A CNN spokesperson told Hollywood Reporter (7/20/07), “Select Comfort is Glenn Beck’s/Headline News’ first and only advertiser to have an on-air entitlement, and it’s specifically targeted for his show.” But the PR flak went on to suggest that they hoped to fix that, saying that Headline News will “evaluate advertiser interest” in similar deals for Beck’s show, as well as for others, including Nancy Grace and Showbiz Tonight.

Somehow, ever since Providence Health Systems began sponsoring a weekly medical report during newscasts on KOIN-TV in Portland, Oregon, Providence spokespeople seem to keep showing up in those reports. In one segment, according to OPB News (6/25/07), an informational phone number given out at the end of a story on inner ear disorders turned out to be for Providence. Likewise, a segment on Montessori schools featured one operated by Providence. At the time of OPB News’ story, each of the station’s previous 14 health reports had featured at least one Providence source.

KOIN news director Jeff Alan declared: “These are not advertisements whatsoever. These are reports.” He admitted that the sponsor’s experts were likely to be featured, because “they’re looking to be available,” but he claimed that “if other hospitals and other people were more available to us, yeah, they would be in the reports.” However, according to OPB News’ investigation, the station “does not appear to have trouble finding non-Providence medical experts for health reports that air at times when Providence is not a sponsor.”

News director Greg Caputo of WGN-Channel 9 in Chicago didn’t see what the fuss was about. “We’re not going to be promoting the Bureau of Tourism, for God’s sake,” Caputo exclaimed (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/23/07). Caputo was responding to concerns about two-minute segments the station planned to air April through July, sponsored by the state tourism bureau. WGN would retain “total editorial control” over the segments about travel in and around the state, Alan argued, though the sponsoring agency wouldn’t be shut out: “We may ask them for some of their ideas.” No word on whether that’s the relationship the news department usually maintains with advertisers.

Amanda Congdon may have had a modern job title—she was a “videoblogger” for ABC News—but she has an old-fashioned conflict of interest. According to Ad Age (3/19/07), she had a sideline hosting a series of what she called “infotainmercials” for the website of the chemical company DuPont. As Radar magazine put it (RadarOnline.com, 3/20/07), the deal “naturally raises questions about how aggressively the network covers DuPont’s role in, say, building up Iraq’s nuclear program or its part in giving thousands of people cancer.”

But it wasn’t a problem for ABC News; network spokesperson Jeffrey Schneider told Radar that Congdon was “a unique contributor who had deals prior to working for ABC, and continues to do so”—though Congdon’s videoblog segments were also featured on ABC’s 24-hour digital news channel, ABC News Now, and her segments were co-produced, at least according to her, by an ABC News senior producer.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer was sold in 2006, some readers may have hoped the paper would bring in some new voices. They probably didn’t imagine that one of those new “voices” would be a bank. In what their own staff writer called an “unusual arrangement” (4/14/07), the Inquirer began running a column paid for by Citizens Bank in 2007. The column, which focuses on news about local businesses, carries a Citizens Bank label and is boxed in green—that’s “Citizens Bank’s color,” the paper informed readers (in a story whose main subject was the paper’s decision to start running ads on page one, “once considered the sacred province of news”).

CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo seemed to be a walking conflict of interest in 2007. In January, details of her close relationship with top Citigroup officer Todd Thomson were revealed (Wall Street Journal, 1/24/07). Citigroup is a major CNBC advertiser, as well as the subject of reporting on any financial news network. Thomson often brought Bartiromo to company functions and meetings with clients, in one case flying her to private Citigroup luncheons in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The conflict seems obvious, but CNBC defended their star anchor, even chalking the engagements up to “source development” (Wall Street Journal, 1/26/07). One anonymous CNBC source told the Washington Post (1/26/07): “I don’t think there’s even the appearance of a conflict of interest. . . . We paid our way. This is what we cover. This is what we do.”

New York Times columnist David Carr had a different take (1/29/07), pointing to “an implicit contract at play here. By making huge advertising buys on CNBC, Citigroup obtained access to its biggest star. Clearly, an exchange of brands was under way.” Added Carr: “CNBC has positioned itself as an adjunct to business, the glowing friend in the corner with the sound off and a ticker at the bottom. . . . It is companion media rather than the source of oversight or rigorous coverage.”

The Boss’s Business(es)

For some, the Wall Street Journal’s failure to break the story of its own parent company’s imminent purchase by Rupert Murdoch (CNBC—5/1/07—was first with the story of Murdoch’s ultimately successful bid for Dow Jones) was the perfect example of corporate media outlets’ inability to report on themselves. Slate’s Michelle Tsai (7/10/07) cited self-censorship on matters of their boss’s business as an all-too-common media reality. “35 percent of respondents [to a journalists’ survey] said journalists they knew often or sometimes avoided stories that would hurt the financial interests of their employers.” The flip side, of course, is all those stories they actually do that serve those financial interests, which become more various all the time.

It seems the biggest sacred cow of the press really is the press itself, even if the press is just a giveaway subway tabloid like Metro. New York magazine reported (8/13/07) that Metro humor columnist (and Daily Show producer) Elliott Kalan had been summarily dropped from the paper after a column in which he declared: “Nobody reads newspapers anymore. As this very copy of Metro shows, the only way to get people to read a newspaper is to literally force it into their hands.”

A Metro staffer told New York that Kalan’s column was seen by the interim CEO of the Stockholm-based Metro International, in New York on business, who told the paper’s New York publisher to fire the columnist immediately; Kalan was told the next week his column was finished. Says Kalan, “My assumption is the wrong person saw it and didn’t get the joke.”

And they know funny, those Metro execs. The global newspaper chain is notorious for in-house “humor,” like that of leading North American executive Steve Nylundh, who opened a 2003 speech to a group of top representatives: “There were two niggers standing by a pool, and they took their dicks out” (AlterNet, 1/10/05).

The worst examples of conflict of interest are when the public has no way of knowing of a behind-the-scenes link between the content of a news story and some other entity. But sometimes disclosure just doesn’t seem like enough. When NBC’s Today show launched its “Where In the World Is Matt Lauer?” feature by having Lauer “earn his wings” at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington (4/30/07), the show’s acknowledgement of their corporate closeness to the matter consisted of Lauer, after telling viewers he was “standing right now inside one of the engines of a 777,” continuing: “Full disclosure, it’s actually made by our parent company, General Electric. One hundred fifteen thousand pounds of thrust.”

But that disclosure seemed more like a plug when it was followed by Lauer’s assurances that “these planes will make flying more comfortable” and that “you don’t have to be nervous on a plane like this, because they have put these things through rigorous and extensive testing.” Another correspondent declared that new Boeing planes “will actually not only deliver passengers a better ride, but also cost savings for airlines,” while a third reporter described Boeing as “a single company contributing an awful lot to the U.S. bottom line.” By the time Lauer thanked Boeing employees “who love what they do and make a great product,” and signed off with “a saying around here . . . ‘If it ain’t Boeing, we ain’t going,’” viewers may have felt that no amount of disclosure could have been sufficient.

Timing is everything. Had ABC’s news division decided to devote five hours in the heart of primetime to NASCAR in 2006, that might’ve been one thing. But the fact that the network launched the five-part documentary series NASCAR in Primetime in August 2007, just weeks after ABC corporate cousins ABC Sports and ESPN began a $560 million-a-year contract to carry the sport, made it seem like another thing altogether. A New York Times reviewer (8/15/07) found the series offered “nothing new about NASCAR” —but it seemed newsworthy enough to Good Morning America (also in ABC’s news division), which aired a segment the day of the first installment (8/15/07) that concluded with reporter Chris Cuomo telling viewers to “make sure to watch it.”

The Catholic Church shouldn’t be in the business of fibbing, but that’s what some suspected when the Brownsville, Texas PBS affiliate KMBH, owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, claimed that they didn’t air the Frontline documentary Hand of God because PBS failed to provide the video feed in time (Valley Morning Star, 1/18/07). Critics suspected the station’s actual reason had to do with the documentary’s subject matter: Catholic priest molestation scandals. The station re-aired a program about the Taliban instead.

It’s by now an open joke that the Super Bowl will have urgent “news value” to the news division of whatever network is sponsoring it that year. Too bad the joke’s on the public, who are poorly served by such open acceptance of non-journalistic priorities. In 2007, CBS’s supposedly austere Sunday political talkshow Face the Nation signed on as just another part of what one paper rightly termed “today’s NFL infomercial” (Newport News, Va. Daily Press, 2/4/07). Host Bob Schieffer, broadcasting from the Indianapolis Colts cheerleader dressing room, made hardly a pretense of journalistic justification:

We usually concentrate on the news we believe you need to know. The Super Bowl, on the other hand, is big news that millions upon millions of Americans want to know. Since someone had to do it, we volunteered to help tell the story. Now, how is that for a high-minded excuse for being here?

Not great.

The network tie-in is no longer limited to “light” morning show segments. Call it rooting for the home team, but one has to ask what stories are being squeezed out as chunks of the newscast are devoted to in-house cheerleading. Several writers on ABC’s Good Morning America, responding anonymously to a 2007 Writers Guild of America, East survey (7/07), reported that “any domestic story without a crime component is expected to find a way to use a clip from the popular ABC television series Desperate Housewives.” Journalists at WABC-TV in New York noted the station had “reported” on magician David Blaine’s Manhattan underwater-living stunt each of eight nights leading up to an ABC primetime special in which he re-surfaced. ABC Network Radio staffers were “instructed to write about” betting on the National Spelling Bee, coincidentally airing on ABC that week.

The WGA-E survey also found accounts of parent company tie-ins at CBS, where respondents “took particular exception to the requirement that they regularly write interviews with the previous night’s Survivor or Amazing Race loser, stories about the ‘real-life missing person’ featured on that Sunday’s episode of Without a Trace, and numerous feature stories incorporating syndicated daytime talkshow host Dr. Phil.”

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, a 2007 book by Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin, expanded on “Leave or Die,” Jaspin’s remarkable 2006 series on racial cleansing in 14 American counties in Texas, Missouri, Indiana and Georgia. In the book, Jaspin describes how “Leave or Die,” which ran in Cox and non-Cox papers, came to be spiked in the chain’s largest daily, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). The decision was especially noteworthy since Forsyth County, featured in the series, is part of the paper’s distribution area.

The problem, according to Jaspin (Creative Loafing, 3/7/07): In reporting the terrible history of racial violence against blacks in the early 20th century, in which many were driven from their homes, the series also noted the Journal-Constitution’s record of ignoring and whitewashing that history.

Beyond killing the series locally, recounts Jaspin, AJC editors inveighed upon Cox to tone down criticisms of the paper in his reporting, in order to “obscure the Atlanta newspaper’s lackadaisical coverage.” Behind the scenes, executives went so far as to plan an “anti-marketing” strategy to keep Atlanta readers from even finding out about the series, and Jaspin was forbidden to “proactively mention” the Journal-Constitution’s reporting in public discussion.

AJC managing editor Hank Klibanoff doesn’t deny Jaspin’s charges, but dismisses the reporter as overzealous and “cranky” (Creative Loafing, 3/7/07). As for whether the paper was unfairly portrayed, however, Jaspin’s book quotes David Pasztor, who edited “Leave or Die” for Cox’s Austin American-Statesman:

Why are [we] pounding on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for being apologists who look at race relations in Forsyth County through rose-colored glasses? The reason we are doing that is because the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been apologists who look at race relations in Forsyth County through rose-colored glasses. It’s just true.

The paper’s actions around the series would tend to corroborate that.

Government Pressure

In March 2007, a Missouri circuit judge ordered two media outlets (the Kansas City Star and alternative weekly the Pitch) to refrain from publishing stories about the Board of Public Utilities that were based on a confidential document. The papers were going to report that the power company may have been operating several plants in violation of federal environmental laws. The stories had already been published on each paper’s website, so the judge ordered those removed as well, citing the need to protect the utility company from being “irreparably harmed.” The decision was later reversed (Editor & Publisher, 3/6/07).

Cases of such direct, specific intervention may be rare, but only because the influence official power exerts on news media is so general and pervasive. Reporters rely on government officials for much of what is considered news, and maintaining friendly relationships with these sources is considered an essential part of the job. Obvious “favors” extended to politicians include the infamous “beat sweeteners”—soft stories full of glowing testimonials from (often unnamed) aides and supporters. But what is it if not a favor when journalists routinely take their cues from official pronouncements—for example, reporting the Bush White House’s assertions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions with nary a dissenting voice (FAIR Action Alert, 2/16/07)?

Fear of losing access is often cited as the driving force behind such timidity, and there’s something to that. Reporters at the Knight Ridder chain stood apart from their mainstream media colleagues for their skeptical analysis of the WMD rationale for the Iraq War. The chain was swallowed up by McClatchy Newspapers, but Pentagon officials apparently aren’t ready to make up. Editor & Publisher reported last year (5/23/07) that the bureau’s reporters have been barred from the defense secretary’s plane for “at least three years” due to their critical coverage of the Pentagon.

The Lowell Sun had a novel approach to celebrating the birthday of hometown Rep. Marty Meehan (D.-Mass.): a special section dedicated to the life and good works of Marty Meehan. The section was described by the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/07) as “56 besotted pages of gushing articles” that also included special advertisements from local businesses and politicians paying tribute to Meehan. Finally, a portion of the ad revenue went to the Marty Meehan Educational Foundation.

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation pulled a documentary about the Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement hours before it was scheduled to air (New York Times, 11/9/07). The CBC didn’t exactly say what was objectionable about the report, though they did say that Chinese diplomats in Canada had lobbied them to cancel the airing of Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of Falun Gong. The New York Times quoted some observers who wondered if the CBC’s upcoming broadcasts of the Beijing Olympic games could have played a role. One CBC official’s comment was: “I’m happy we didn’t air it. I’m happy we stepped into the process. In the end, we got the journalism right.”

When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to garner press attention for his annual State of the City speech, his office decided there was one sure way to get the kind of coverage they’d like: float advance copies of his speech to reporters a day early, on the condition that they not interview potential critics about his proposals.

Reporter Liz Cox Barrett of the CJR Daily website (1/18/07) found just one local—the New York Sun (1/17/07)—that filled readers in on the deal, even as they played along. The Sun included no analysis or comment from outsiders in their story, but did state that Bloomberg’s remarks were “released to reporters on the condition that nobody would be called to comment on them until today.”

As for other papers (all 1/17/07), the New York Times indicated only that they were briefed “on the condition of anonymity”; the New York Post had it they were “briefed . . . on a background basis” by “an unnamed mayoral aide,” while Newsday and the Daily News simply quoted these unnamed Bloomberg officials.

As Cox Barrett put it: “You can’t beat a day’s worth of stories in the press highlighting the crowd-pleasing parts of a speech, free of outside analysis or criticism. (Wait, aren’t those called press releases?)”