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A Question of Synergy

    When Michael Eisner, head of the Walt Disney Corporation, merged the ABC television network into his company, he predicted profitable results due in part to “synergy.” 

    Some journalists feared that synergy might translate into advertisements for various Disney ventures masquerading as news. 

    You decide whether Bay Area viewers saw two examples of “synergy” during the final week of 1999 when Disney’s KGO, Channel 7, broadcast its sports segment live from Disneyland. 

What happened?

    On December 27, Sports Director Martin Wyatt reported live twice during the 5:30 p.m. newscast. His first report was not about the upcoming Rose Bowl, or about sports at all. It focused on what fun Stanford players had at Disneyland. 

    Players, who were admitted free as part of a promotion sponsored by the theme park, were shown whirling in tea cups on one ride and interviewed about their favorite attractions. Wyatt even managed to work in Disneyland’s advertising jingle, calling it “the happiest place on earth—Disneyland.” 

    In his second report on the newscast, Wyatt returned to the theme, calling Disneyland “the merriest place on earth.” The setting was carefully chosen. The trademark castle of the “Magic Kingdom” was lit up in the background and holiday lights sparkled immediately behind Wyatt. 

    Wyatt did cover what other stations considered the big sports story of the day: the announcement that the Bay Area’s pro basketball team, the Warriors, had fired coach P.J. Carlesimo. Channels 2, 4 and 5 went live with reports from the Warriors’ press conference. Channel 7 was the only Bay Area station covering football players at Disneyland, according to Stanford Athletic Media Relations spokesman Mike Peterson. 

    On New Year’s eve, Wyatt was back doing sports live from Disneyland. This time, however, Stanford’s football team was not at the park. In neither broadcast did Channel 7 acknowledge that Disney owns KGO. 

Channel 7 responds

    Channel 7 News Director Ed Kosowski did not return repeated phone calls. But Wyatt, a respected veteran reporter, did respond: “I think we did the right thing.” He claimed responsibility for the decision to report live from Disneyland and said using the Disney catch phrases was also his idea. “I was just having fun,” he said. 

    “There was never a decision, we’re going to plug Disney,” he added. 

Channel 7, he noted, wanted to “own” the Rose Bowl story. Reporters had only one photo opportunity with the team on December 27, he explained. It was at Disneyland because the team didn’t practice.

    “It wasn’t about Disneyland,” he said. “It was about their [the team’s] day.” 

    Asked what news value there was to a sports story without any sports information, Wyatt said, “I’m not looking particularly just to satisfy the sports fan. I want to have something for everyone.” 

    Wyatt and sports producer Eric Christensen, who was also at Disneyland, said they didn’t think twice about broadcasting from Disneyland. It was part of a schedule Stanford sent of photo opportunities. KGO, they pointed out, had also covered the team eating at a restaurant and kidding with Jay Leno at Universal Studios, owned by a Disney competitor. 

    KGO reported live from Disneyland on New Year’s Eve entirely for “logistical reasons,” Christensen explained. The truck needed to relay the signal to San Francisco belonged to sister Disney station KABC in Los Angeles, and it was at Disneyland. KABC, he said, was also using Disneyland as a site to do live reports that week. 

    Wyatt said disclosing the relationship between KGO and Disneyland would have been unusual. “Many times we’ve done things from Disneyland and I’ve never heard that said.” 

    Christensen conceded that with a few big companies owning most American news media, there is a danger that news will be used to advance corporate interests at the public’s expense. But this was not a good example, he contended. “No one told us to be at Disneyland.”

The experts weigh in

    Theodore Glasser directs the Graduate Journalism Program at Stanford and chairs the ethics committee of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “It’s wrong,” he said. “We begin to wonder where journalism is independent and where it is not. There’s nothing more important than journalists making independent judgments [about what is news and how it is reported.]

    Such incidents, he argued, “undermine the time-honored role of the press. When the press has an agenda—as it often does and should—it ought to be arrived at in clear and public way.” 

    “I shouldn’t be guessing whether they thought they were doing a favor to their parent company. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I shouldn’t have to wonder about that. People who know about the connection [between KGO and Disneyland] are certainly going to wonder. You’d think they wouldn’t want to look self-serving.” 

    “It’s cheesy,” said William Woo, a visiting professor at Stanford and a career journalist—foreign correspondent, editorial writer, Washington-based columnist, and for ten years the editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.“The only reason they did it,” he said, “was to promote their owner—Disney.” 

    “In itself it’s a small thing,” he explained, “but it’s addictive and corrosive. It acts like arsenic. It’s not a lethal dose, but it builds up in the tissues and accumulates. We’ve found that ethical lapses have a contagious effect.” 

    Tim Graham, president of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and former editor of the Oakland Tribune, commented: "there is absolutely no question that a violation occurred in this instance if Channel 7 failed to disclose its corporate affilation with Disneyland. It would have been a very easy thing, either as part of the lead-in or trailer to the Wyatt report, to remind viewers that Channel 7 and Disneyland share the same corporate parent."

A Personal View

    I believe Wyatt and Christensen. Promoting Disneyland probably didn’t trip any internal ethical buzzers. They didn’t need to be ordered to work Disneyland into the news. Promotion is a taken-for-granted part of the culture of many news rooms. 

    The Rose Bowl earns a lot of money not just for its owners, but for local businesses and especially attractions like Disneyland and Universal Studios. The Rose Bowl committee that puts together the photo opportunities for the teams is eager to attract media attention. It’s rational for them to want to prime the pump with as much coverage before the parade and game as possible. The bigger the audience, the more advertisers pay for commercial time. 

    Disney and others join in to boost their own attendance, particularly among those coming to Southern California for the game. Channel 7 wins too. The theme park presents good visuals and the hoopla of the Rose Bowl matches television’s strengths as a medium. Finally, the universities don’t mind. They get a share of the revenue, and it helps recruiting. The bigger the publicity the more each of these actors gains. That’s how synergy works. 

    But the news should not be part of this hype. It creates at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest—that KGO cares more about serving Disney than the public. Such actions violate the  Radio Television News Directors Code of Ethics . Article 2 states that broadcast journalists will “strive to conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” 

That ethical standard is important because surveys  show we—the citizens—are growing more mistrustful about news, both broadcast and print. That’s bad news for journalists and the corporations that employ them. But more importantly, it’s bad news for a society that depends on them for what it needs to know to govern itself.

    A democracy depends on reliable news. It walks away from newspapers and newscasts at its own peril.

-- John McManus 

What do you think?