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Tuned In: Advertising-coverage deals sell out a station's ethics

Thursday, March 08, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Quid pro quo. Give a little to get a little. It's part of everyday business life. It's no different in journalism, which is also a business. But sometimes it is different.

It's different when a news organization promises coverage in exchange for an advertising purchase. That's buying news. It's a huge no-no, and yet it can happen or at least be suggested.

In a marketing proposal to the 2001 Fayette County Fair, WPXI promised, "Pittsburgh's No. 1 news team will cover the Fayette County Fair during the week preceding the event. Like last year, to attract fair-lovers from surrounding southwestern Pennsylvania counties, WPXI's Westmoreland County correspondent, Rick Earle, will give Channel 11 viewers a glimpse of what to expect from the weeklong event."

Earle said he'd never heard of the proposal and has never done stories at the request of station clients. Bill Jackson, president of the Fayette County Fair board, acknowledged receiving the proposal from Channel 11.

"We've also talked to Channel 4, but they've promised less," Jackson said. "They say if it's newsworthy, they may cover it, but they don't promise. Less of that kind of thing."

Jackson said he couldn't remember whether Channel 11 representatives orally promised news coverage as part of a marketing deal, but the printed proposal makes clear news coverage was to be included. Jackson said Channel 4 representatives sent a letter specifically saying they would not promise news coverage.

There's a difference between promising news coverage as part of an advertising deal and selling advertising without that promise. An event for which advertising is sold without a promise of coverage may still end up covered in a newscast, but it will get there because it's newsworthy, not because it's part of a deal. That's a small but important distinction to anyone concerned about journalistic ethics.

The WPXI pitch document, which also details a number of 10- and 30-second commercials and when those would air, indicates the Fayette County Fair would have to pay $15,000 but would receive $34,000 in promotional value, including Earle's news coverage of the event, valued at $2,000.

A weather broadcast live from the fair is valued at $2,000 and "mentions on the Saturday and Sunday morning news programs of the week's events, time and other important information about evening events" are valued at $1,500.

That's selling news content, and it's wrong. WPXI general manager John Howell agreed. He said the pitch was put together by the station's least experienced account executive, who looked at how the fair was covered by the news department last year (the first year of a WPXI-fair marketing partnership) and presumed it would get the same coverage this year.

"The way it's listed on here is wrong," Howell said. "We just don't do that. It's against policy, and it has been fixed. You can't guarantee anything for news. It just is impossible and everybody asks [for it] and the answer has to be, we'll tell the news department about the event and sometimes we get there [to cover it] and sometimes we don't."

In 1999, a Fox affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., offered local businesses the opportunity to buy three "positive" news reports about them in exchange for $15,000. In an Associated Press report on the incident, an executive for the station blamed a rogue salesperson and quickly rescinded the offer.

Bob Steele, director of ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said news should not be for sale.

"Certainly journalism is a business and it must succeed financially in order to carry out good journalism, but television stations and newspapers and other news organizations should not be unduly influenced by business and commercial concerns," Steele said. "I say unduly because there's no doubt there is some level of influence."

He said it's unusual for such promises to be made in writing. They're more likely to be oral.

"What's more common is verbal pitches to accounts from account executives that infer the station will cover an event in exchange for the buy, and then pressure is placed in varying degrees on news directors to follow through with that coverage," Steele said. "To make a promise to a client that the buy is connected to quid pro quo news coverage is wrong, pure and simple. The news department should not be determining its coverage of events and issues based on advertising motives."

MEOW MIX: Last month during a morning newscast on WTAE, reporter Bob Mayo was live on the scene of a fire where a pet cat was missing. During his live shot, Mayo and anchor Sam Merrill both heard a cat's meows, and Merrill even commented on it to Mayo.

Turned out the sound of the cat was an effect added by a Channel 4 audio engineer.

"While it's not our policy to comment on personnel issues, we take what's on our television station and newscasts very seriously," said WTAE news director Bob Longo. "There was an incident that morning, and it's been dealt with."

Multiple sources report the audio engineer was fired.

"SON" RETURNS: Every TV critic has a guilty pleasure. Mine is FX's "Son of the Beach," a "Baywatch" parody that returns with new episodes at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

With Howard Stern in the credits as an executive producer, you know the show will be raunchy, inappropriate for children and politically incorrect, but it's also sometimes hilarious.

Tuesday's premiere sends lifeguard Notch Johnson (Timothy Stack) and his crew to Hawaii. Notch is particularly excited to drink some Hawaiian Punch, because even though you can buy it on the mainland, "it's not fresh like it is here."

That's one of the few jokes that can be printed in a family newspaper. Mostly, the show plays on sexual innuendo and jargon that's on the junior high level. It's lowbrow humor in the extreme, but it still makes me laugh.

The episode includes one of the worst acting performances of all time from a guest star playing "Rucy Riu," a riff on the name of actress Lucy Liu that's bound to offend some viewers.

And that's just it: "Son of the Beach" is gleefully offensive and stupid, sparing no one. This week it's Asians; next week it's Russians, as a communist military commander (Walter Koenig from "Star Trek") tries to re-ignite the Cold War.

"Son of the Beach" will never be confused with quality programming, but in a post-Mel Brooks, post-Zucker Brothers era, it has the best dirty gags on TV.

NICE DIS: Friday's "PopStars" on The WB included scenes of the prefab girl pop group's first live performance, which took place at January's TV critics press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

One of the girls unknowingly put us mean old critics in our place when she said, "Because we were performing live, even though it wasn't for a real audience, it was the most exciting thing."

Thursday, March 08, 2001

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