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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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