We discussed the story on Fox News Watch last week, but only for a minute and a half. It was one of our quick takes and did not seem to be worth more than that.
But I’ve been thinking the story since then. Maybe it is worth more than 90 seconds. Maybe it’s worth a slow take, which is precisely what the following paragraphs mean to provide.
TV station WTVH in Syracuse, New York has an afternoon newscast called "Central New York Live!" I am not certain that the program itself deserves an exclamation point, but one of its practices deserves a couple of them.
It seems that WTVH is selling airtime to sponsors--not during the commercial blocks, but during the actual program. Exclamation point. It is, in other words, disguising commercials as legitimate "news" interviews. Exclamation point, exclamation point.
Here is an example, as described by William LaRue on the Syracuse Post-Standard’s website: "Not long into Channel 5’s 5 p.m. news-and-talk program Monday, host Donna Adamo spent three minutes showing off bracelets being promoted by two employees of Jet Black, an Armory Square fashion shop. But this interview on "Central New York Live!’ wasn’t WTVH-TV’s early Valentine’s Day gift to the shop. Jet Black is one of several advertisers who have bought three-minute appearances on the show. Channel 5 is charging advertisers up to $600 an interview."
Other examples: A Syracuse attorney has paid money to the station to appear on "Central New York Live!" as a legal expert. A local Ford dealer has "signed a 26-week contract in which Adamo interviews dealership spokesman Tom Licciardello Jr. about automobile issues at 5:45 p.m. Wednesdays. . . . East Syracuse financial planner Luther Conant said he signed up for five weekly appearances at 5:45 p.m. Thursdays. Conant also didn’t disclose how much he’s paying, saying the amount is tied to half-hour commercials he buys at 11:30 a.m. Sundays on Channel 5.
Channel 5 executives defend the paid interviews by saying that they appear only during the entertainment segments of the program, that they are, as LaRue puts it, "Clearly separate from news content."
Nonsense. They are part of the news program, and the only thing they are "clearly separate from" is conventional-looking commercials, which is the point of the deception. Furthermore, how can a lawyer’s comments on legal matters be considered "entertainment"? How can a car dealer’s analysis of automotive matters be considered "entertainment"? How can a financial planner’s advice on investments be considered "entertainment"?
An ethical newsroom would choose its legal and automotive and financial experts on the basis of their knowledge and credibility and impartiality, not on the basis of their willingness to pay.
And what about all the bracelets for sale in all the stores that did not cough up $600 for the WTVH sales department? Might they not be of equal quality, equally worth calling to the attention of the Channel 5 audience?
Question mark, question mark.
In response to all the criticism it has received for this scam, WTVH is now airing a disclaimer during the dummy interviews, a few words for a few seconds at the bottom of the screen. It is not enough. Nor is the wording in the disclaimer clear.
I think that what has made this story stick with me, as strange as it sounds, is that war in Iraq is apparently imminent. If so, it will be a test for American journalism no less than American military competence. American television viewers will be demanding the highest possible standards of accuracy and honesty and objectivity from their news programs, more than ever before.
And here’s this tacky little newsroom in Syracuse, New York, reminding everyone of what journalism can be like at its very worst.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .