If News is Worth Dying for,

Is it Worth Protecting from Conflict of Interest?

commentary by John McManus

We have just learned of the gruesome execution of Wall Street Journal reporter, and Stanford grad, Daniel Pearl. He joins eight other journalists recently murdered in Afghanistan, and more than a score elsewhere around the world last year, who were willing to risk their lives for something called news.

Yet aren’t those who employ journalists increasingly looking at news as just another way to make money?

While Pearl was in captivity for seeking dangerous truths, NBC’s Tom Brokaw--wearing a bright yellow parka--was anchoring the news from Salt Lake City.  Was the respected NBC anchor there because Utah offers a clearer perspective on America’s war on terror or Enron’s implosion?

Was it because the Winter Games are such a big story that Mr. Brokaw needed to be there to symbolize their importance? For a week? Or was it because NBC owns the rights to broadcast the Olympics and when NBC sold ads for the Winter Games, it promised an all-out promotion--

News or promotion?

No doubt the Olympics are popular. And the events of September have sharpened American partisanship. But if the Winter Games are such a signal story that they demand the evening news move to Utah, where were Dan Rather and Peter Jennings?

One might make a case that Mr. Brokaw was in Salt Lake for a national news story rather than a corporate promotion. But what journalistic justification could there be for KNTV’s Terilyn Joe and Allen Denton anchoring the local news--Bay Area news--from Utah?

The value of news for promotion

The economic incentive is clear. KNTV, or NBC3 as it now calls itself, could promise Bay Area advertisers that all of its commercial “spots”30-second ad slots--in the Winter Games would be backed by news department promotion--a total station effort. The additional audience drawn to the Olympics by making them the focus, not just of network promotions, but of the news itself, made all of the locally-sold spots peppering the two-week games more valuable. The bigger the anticipated audience, the more stations can charge for spots.

As politicians and advertisers can attest, news is the most valuable kind of promotion. That’s because news is expected to be neutral, told for the public’s benefit rather than a special interest’s. It’s far more credible than an ad.

Boosting the Olympic audience was only part of the windfall for KNTV. By linking the local newscast to Salt Lake, the San Jose station made the most of its promotional teases during prime time viewing of the games, luring an Olympic-sized “flow” audience to its 11 p.m. newscast. The fact that the games coincide with February “sweeps” when audience size is measured to set ad rates--means NBC3 can charge an Olympic rate for its ads not just during the games, but until after the next sweeps in May.

When millions of dollars are at stake, why shouldn’t news be devoted to promotion?

NBC3 responds

NBC3 news director Bob Goldberger has declined interviews until March. But KNTV’s spokesperson, Erika Taylor of PRx Solutions in San Jose, responded this way:

We don't think it's unethical for a station that just became an NBC affiliate (and will soon become an O&O) [owned and operated] to leverage its network's sponsorship of a major sporting event. There is enormous interest in the Bay Area about the Olympics (as shown by the phenomenally high ratings here) and NBC3 is providing its viewers with additional information and a local perspective.”

News as "leverage"

No one questions that residents of the Bay Area, like many other Americans, enjoy watching the Olympics.  And NBC is responding to that desire--quite appropriately--by saturation broadcasting of the Winter Games.  In addition, KNTV’s news team is providing local coverage of the Olympics beyond the network’s, outside of its normal newscasts. Why, with all of that, must the regular local newscast also be shifted to Salt Lake?

I have two objections to using the news as “leverage” rather than a good in itself.

First a practical reason. When Ms. Joe and Mr. Denton, News Director Goldberger and a squad of reporters took off for Utah, much of the six newscasts they produced went with them. Bay Area news--even weather forecasts--were displaced in favor of news from Salt Lake.

On the six o’clock news the first night the KNTV team broadcast from Utah, the games had yet to begin.  I taped the top thirty minutes of that newscast and found 11.5 minutes were reported from the Bay Area--a little more than half the non-advertising time. But even local reports focused on Salt Lake. Bay Area issues and events were short-changed.

Reporter Sasha Foo described the “big bash” her own station was hosting on Pier 3 in San Francisco. She gave us a sneak preview of a boat NBC3 had rented for the evening which boasted dozens of TV sets tuned to….NBC3. (She neglected to mention that the boat was hired to allow San Franciscans shut out of the Olympic audience because of NBC3’s faint signal to watch the opening ceremony.)    

Reporter Jonah Tichenor interviewed four people at a café somewhere in the Bay Area who were offered as evidence of the “Olympic excitement” that gripped the Bay Area. (Characteristically for KNTV, the reporter only bothered to identify one of the four sources who spoke on camera.) Later weatherman John Farley forecast the conditions for Salt Lake, including the 5-day Olympic weather outlook. Bay Area weather? Missing but for a joke that it was “plenty warm inside” the NBC3 boat on Pier 3, from which he reported.

Selling the credibility of the news

The second objection to using news to “leverage” corporate interest is longer-term. It erodes public confidence in the news to know that it was selected not with an eye to public service, but for private gain, in this case to make watching the Olympics (on NBC3) the most newsworthy--and therefore most important--Bay Area event.

The script of the newscast was clearly written with promotion in mind. “Excitement” was the key word. “Don’t miss it!” was implied.

Mr. Denton and Ms. Joe introduced the theme at the top of the hour: “We’re inside the Silver Lake Lodge (in Park City, Utah) tonight to bring you all the excitement of the Winter Olympics, ” read Mr. Denton. “You can just feel the excitement,” added Ms. Joe.

“We can feel the excitement up here in the mountains,” Ms. Joe said  moments later in a handoff to reporter Beth Willon in Salt Lake. “It must be overwhelming there.” Ms. Willon, we were told, was interviewing Bay Area visitors to the Winter Games to record their, well, excitement. Only one of her sources was identified as a Bay Area resident, however. (But in fairness, it’s possible a second source, who was not identified, was also from the Bay Area.)

Reporter Tichenor in his report from a Bay Area café about Olympic excitement may have inadvertently got it right. “The hype transcends age groups and cultures,” he said.

Is this news to die for?

What, you may ask, does the news from Salt Lake have to do with journalists dying to tell the truth?

Absolutely nothing.

 

A memorial service will be held for Daniel Perl at Stanford Memorial Church, Monday February 25, at 4 p.m. All are invited.

 

What do you think?

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