Fear & Favor 2004
[in the newsroom]
How power shapes the news
by Peter Hart &Julie Hollar
Extra!, April 2005 (FAIR)
"We can get five reporters a month
to do news stories about your product. If you want to be interviewed
by 10 to 20 reporters per month, we can arrange that, too ....
Media Relations, Inc. has placed tens of thousands of news stories
on behalf of more than 1,000 clients.
Media Relations, Inc. solicitation
The PR agency's promises are a stark reminder
that the news is, in many ways, a collision of different interests.
The traditional tenets of journalism are challenged and undermined
by other factors:
'Advertisers demand "friendly copy,"
while other commercial interests work to place news items that
serve the same function as advertising. Media owners exert pressure
to promote the parent company's self-interest. Powerful local
and national interests demand softball treatment. And government
power is exerted to craft stories, influence content-and even
to make up phony "news" that can be passed off as the
Journalists, on the whole, understand
these pressures all too well. A survey of media workers by four
industry labor unions (Media Professionals and Their Industry,
7/20/04) found respondents concerned about "pressure from
advertisers trying to shape coverage" as well as "outside
control of editorial policy." In May, the Pew Research Center
for the People & the Press released a survey of media professionals
that found reporters concerned about how bottom-line pressures
were affecting news quality and integrity. In their summary of
the report, Bill Kovach, Tom Rosensteil and Amy Mitchell wrote
that journalists "report more cases of advertisers and owners
breaching the independence of the newsroom."
The Fear & Favor report is an attempt
to illustrate this growing encroachment on journalism with real
examples that have been made public-not an exhaustive list by
any means, but a reminder that such pressures exist, and that
reporters serve the best interests of citizens and the journalistic
profession by coming forward with their own accounts.
In Advertisers We Trust
USA Today (5/18/04) served notice that
corporate advertisers have a remarkable influence over what we
see on the TV screen. As the paper noted, in the media world "there
is worry that the flood of grisly images flowing into living rooms
from Iraq and elsewhere will discourage advertisers.
A General Motors spokesperson explained
that her company "would not advertise on a TV program [just]
about atrocities in Iraq," while an ad exec explained that
"you don't want to run a humorous commercial next to horrific
images and stories." A Ford representative said the company
keeps a close eye on news images that accompany its ads, saying,
"We're monitoring the content and will make decisions based
on the nature of the content. But we don't have a lot of control."
But they do, of course. Commercial media
wouldn't exist without, well, the commercials. And in order to
keep the revenue flowing, media outlets increasingly blur the
lines between their advertising and editorial divisions.
* When a super-sized corporation comes
to town, it brings along an ad budget to match, and newspapers
sometimes seem more than willing to suspend the rules of critical
journalism to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy new arrival.
When furniture giant Ikea opened a new store in New Haven, Connecticut,
the New Haven Register cranked out 12 Ikea stories in eight straight
days-accompanied by at least 17 photographs and a sidebar on product
information-with headlines such as "Ikea's Focus on Child
Labor Issues Reflects Ethic of Social Responsibility" (7/25/04)
and "Ikea Employees Take Pride in Level of Responsibility
Company Affords Them" (7/27/04). The Register's Ikea reporter
was even sent to Sweden to visit the company's headquarters-on
Ikea's dime, according to Columbia Journalism Review (11-12/04),
a little detail the Register failed to disclose.
The back-scratching reached its apex the
day of the grand opening, when the Register (7/28/04) heralded
the arrival of Ikea and fellow superstore Wal-Mart and remarked
upon Ikea's "astonishingly low prices-a coffee table for
$99, a flowing watering can for $1.99, a woven rocking chair,
$59." Sound like an ad? It was the Register's lead editorial.
* While Register readers could have mistaken
the paper's news for advertising, Boston Herald readers on January
7 could easily have mistaken the paper's front-page ad for news.
When discount airline JetBlue launched several new flight services
out of Boston's Logan Airport, Bostonians who picked up a free
promotional Herald that day found that every item on the front
page was devoted exclusively to the airline, including the lead
headline, "JetBlue Arrives, Promises a Free TV to All Who
Fly," and teasers like "Flight Attendant Gives Passenger
Entire Can of Soda." After the front page, the paper resumed
its actual news content-but nowhere did the Herald indicate that
its front page was in fact a paid advertisement, and the 20,000
recipients of the promo paper missed out on the actual front-page
news of the day (BostonPhoenix.com, 1/7/04).
When asked about the stunt, a Herald spokesperson
said the paper had produced the "mock" front page "to
commemorate JetBlue's launch into the Boston market" (WBUR.org,
1/9/04). She did acknowledge that "We probably should have
said something ... that indicated it wasn't our real front page,"
but wouldn't rule out future front-page promos.
* When Kirksville, Missouri's KTVO-TV
ran a news report that quoted a company that didn't advertise
on the station rather than a competitor that did, the angry advertiser
pulled its ads from the station. KTVO vice president and general
manager Crystal Amini-Rad quickly apologized to the sales staff
in a memo that also required news reporters to "have access
to an active advertiser list ... of sources which you can tap
into" for expert opinion and industry comment-and told reporters
that they "should always go" to station advertisers
first on any story (Columbia Journalism Review, 9-10/04).
* When Silver City, New Mexico's KNFT
brought on progressive host Kyle Johnson as an alternative to
the seven hours of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Bill O'Reilly
the station aired every weekday, KNFT's advertisers boycotted
the show. The station made Johnson raise the cash to pay for his
airtime, and his listeners anted up. But the advertisers threatened
to boycott the entire station if Johnson stayed on; faced with
the prospect of a nearly $10,000-a-month loss, the station manager
reluctantly gave the progressive host the boot (Silver City Sun-News,
Powerful Players & PR
It's not just advertisers who have the
clout to bend the rules of journalism. People in powerful positions
have long pulled strings to influence news coverage, with journalists
sometimes acting as witting accomplices.
* When a journalist at Bloomberg News
filed a report about a civil suit against Deutsche Bank (12/5/04),
it didn't seem like a particularly remarkable story; a former
female employee was accusing the company of firing her for complaining
about, among other things, sexual harassment by Damian Kissane,
a former Deutsche Bank exec. But to the surprise of the newsroom
staff, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler had it purged from the
Bloomberg website and replaced six days later with a bowdlerized
version that deleted the names of all parties involved. Shortly
afterwards, he issued a memo to the staff, admonishing that Bloomberg
News "must never be a mouthpiece for litigants who want to
publish court filings to embarrass or gain an advantage over their
Winkler claimed the story "lacked
context" and a sense of "why do we care about this"
(Washington Post, 1/5/05). The New York Post (12/24/04) reported
that Kissane, now Chief Operating Officer of the financial markets
branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was said to have complained
to Winkler. Bloomberg insiders cited by the New York Post suggested
that Winkler rewrote the story in response to Kissane's complaint-perhaps
unsurprisingly, since Bloomberg's main business is selling market
information to the financial industry.
* When St. Paul, Minnesota's KSTP-TV
needed a new lead anchor, it picked someone with years of experience-in
PR. Cyndy Brucato had started at KSTP in the early '80s, but then
moved on to communications work for Republican politicians, and
for the previous eight years ran a PR firm, Halliday & Brucato,
with her husband. There her clients ranged from the Minnesota
House Republican Caucus to big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies.
Brucato also held a state government position on the Minnesota
Board on judicial Standards, which she didn't give up when she
started her journalism job.
Brucato argued that she had quit seeing
clients at the firm and said she would disclose any conflicts
of interest as they arose. Of course, ceasing to see clients hardly
removes the financial interest involved; the firm is still run
by her husband, and she noted that it "is something I have
some equity in" (City Pages, 8/4/04).
* Courts have consistently ruled that
university administrations have to keep their noses out of college
papers' business, but that didn't deter Arizona State University
president Michael Crow. When ASU's State Press (10/7/04) ran a
picture of a female breast with a pierced nipple on the cover
of its weekly magazine supplement, Ira Fulton, who had given ASU
$58 million in the previous year and a half, called Crow's office
to complain. Crow immediately dispatched the student affairs president
to warn the paper that "funding will be suspended ASAP if
Virgil Renzulli, ASU's vice president
for public affairs, claimed the real issue was that the State
Press didn't have a clearly defined content policy; to the students'
response that they follow the Society for Professional journalists'
code of ethics, he replied, "We think that there may be guidelines
more appropriate for student journalists than the ones for other
news organizations" (AP, 11/26/04).
Though the administration insisted Fulton's
complaint had nothing to do with the crackdown, Crow wrote him
an October 16 letter assuring him that "the Office of Student
Affairs will be monitoring the newspaper's forthcoming editorial
decisions very closely and working with its management to ensure
that the University's standards are clearly understood. I appreciate
your direct engagement on this matter" (Phoenix New Times,
As Crow told the Arizona Republic (11/20/04),
"I don't think we want [the State Press] off campus. I think
as an investor in the business, we want some say in how it's run."
Now there's an education in how the media really works.
The Boss' Business
When conservatives complained that CBS
was promoting Bush critic Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes without
disclosing that his book Against All Enemies was published by
Free Press, another Viacom subsidiary, CBS responded (Hollywood
Reporter, 3/23/04) by saying that the show "has interviewed
authors from virtually all the book publishing companies over
its 36 seasons and is beholden to none of them. Publishers seek
out 60 Minutes because it is television's No. 1 newsmagazine."
But the question is not whether authors wouldn't want to get on
60 Minutes if they didn't work for the same company; the question
is, are we really supposed to believe they don't get preferential
consideration when they do?
As a report in the American Journalism
Review noted (11-12/04), comments filed with the FCC regarding
its ownership regulations provided some concrete examples that
such mutual back-scratching does go on. AJR quoted a newspaper
reporter whose bosses also owned a TV station:
When the Nielsen TV ratings come out,
I know I am expected to write a big story if the co-owned station's
ratings are good and to bury the story if the co-owned station's
ratings are down. Or another example. A few years ago, I ran a
survey asking readers what they thought of local television news
programs. My general manager told me the next time I do something
that might affect our sister station, I better check with him
first. I got the message. I haven't done a similar project since
* The violation of the boundary between
news and entertainment is perhaps nowhere as flagrant as on network
"newsmagazine" shows. As a May 14 Los Angeles Times
story explained, the NBC News program Dateline found plenty of
news value in the entertainment offerings of NBC. "Despite
criticism that NBC's news' programs have been turned into brazen
marketing tools for several of the network's prime-time series
finales," the Times reported, "the management of the
combined company seems delighted with the promotional firepower
of its enterprise." The Times cited, among other things,
the two-hour Dateline (5/5/04) devoted to the final episode of
the sitcom Friends, as well as generous coverage of the NBC sitcom
Frasier and the Donald Trump "reality" show The Apprentice.
Thanks to NBC's recent acquisition of
Universal, network news president Neal Shapiro looks forward to
NBC news programs getting first crack at interviewing movie stars
affiliated with Universal films. He dismissed criticisms of this
blurring of the lines between news and entertainment as "asinine"
(LA. Times, 5/14/04).
NBC Today anchor Katie Couric, interviewing
Trump, remarked that he "seems to be the fifth member of
the show these days ... I have confidence you're going to be here
a lot in the fall." To which Trump replied, "Jeff Zucker
will not allow it to be any other way, will he?" Zucker is,
as Newsday's Verne Gay noted (4/21/04), "president of NBC's
Entertainment, News and Cable Group and a leading proponent of
a practice known in TV parlance as 'cross-promotion."
* During the May "sweeps" period
(when advertising rates are set based on audience share), TV Guide
(6/11/04) counted over 117 minutes of NBC promotions on the Today
show. CBS's Early Show, which runs an hour less than Today, finished
second with just over 107 minutes. ABC's Good Morning America
came in last with just under 36 minutes of self-promotion. Former
morning show producer Steve Friedman told the magazine that "it's
inevitable that a morning show or a magazine show will do these
segments," adding: "You'd be a fool not to do it. It's
* Washington Post TV reporter Lisa de
Moraes (8/6/04) catalogued the self-promotion she found in just
that day's listings. ABC's 20/20 profiled reality TV star Victoria
Gotti, whose Growing Up Gotti program just happened to be airing
on the A&E cable channel owned by ABC parent Disney. Over
at CBS, the 48 Hours newsmagazine profiled Yoanna House, who lost
60 pounds to try out for America's Next Top Model, a reality show
airing on the UPN network-which, like CBS, is owned by Viacom.
De Moraes pointedly remarked: "Remember how the broadcast
networks explained that they would cover only three hours of each
of the four-day Democratic and Republican conventions because
they are nothing more than infomercials out of which no real news
* The network that pays for the rights
to broadcast the Olympic Games always happens to find the Olympics
far more newsworthy than its network competitors. In 2004, according
to the Tyndall Report's tally of network newscast coverage (8/28/04),
NBC Nightly News devoted 106 minutes of news time to the Athens
events; by comparison, ABC dedicated 34 minutes of news time,
and CBS only 15. NBC executive producer Tom Touchet, who works
on the Today ;how, felt no conflict, telling the Atlanta journal-Constitution
(8/14/04) that "his bosses haven't asked him to do anything
he wasn't comfortable with."
On July 9, ABC's 20/20 presented a segment
on the legend of King Arthur. While that might be an odd topic
for a newsmagazine show, even more unusual was one of the guest
"experts" chosen to share his views on the subject:
Hollywood bigwig Jerry Bruckheimer, whose "expertise"
consisted in being the producer of the new Disney film King Arthur.
As the Christian Science Monitor (8/27/04) noted, "If the
weakness of Bruckheimer's grasp of Arthurian lore was obvious,
the connection between his movie and ABC television wasn't. Only
at the end of the segment did the reporter mention that Disney
As the Monitor explained, Disney/ ABC
felt no need to even conjure up a good explanation for the decision:
"The movie producer was included in the show for business
reasons, not because he was the most knowledgeable source, acknowledges
David Westin, president of ABC News. 'It made good sense for us,
frankly,' he says, 'to take advantage of all the marketing and
publicity for the movie."
Government and Other "Official"
The relationship between the press and
government should, in theory, be a somewhat confrontational one.
When stories surface that local governments are refusing to speak
to certain reporters or media outlets, one can only hope that
in some way this means the media in question are doing their job,
and politicians are angry about it.
Government officials also know that applying
a little pressure to the media can go a long way. It's worth remembering
that these same media companies are often engaged in high-stakes
lobbying, trying to extract favors from federal or state regulators
they're also obligated to cover-so even if they don't cave in
to pressure, they're not often eager to embarrass the officials
who applied it.
Occasionally, though, some examples of
government pressure attempts are made public. When celebrity reporter
Kitty Kelley was promoting her critical book about the Bush family,
a White House official called NBC News president Neal Shapiro
to discourage the network from doing interviews with her (New
York Times, 9/9/04).
Even some of the most celebrated journalism
is affected by government pressure: CBS's April 28 investigation
of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example,
was held for two weeks at the request of the Pentagon.
It's not just that press-state relations
are often uncontentious; sometimes they're downright cozy. When
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to New York for
the Republican National Convention, the tab wasn't picked up by
the GOP, or even the state he serves; instead, a handful of the
largest media companies in the country-including Fox, NBC Universal,
TimeWarner, Disney and Viacom-paid the bill (New York Times, 8/26/04).
* At the Austin American-Statesman, editorial
page editor Arnold Garcia Jr. got what other reporters might have
considered a scoop: Local business Temple-Inland Inc. was planning
a major-and potentially controversial expansion of its corporate
headquarters. But instead of reporting the news, he suppressed
Garcia got the tip while playing golf
with Austin Mayor Will Wynn. Later, when Garcia e-mailed Wynn
for more information, the mayor told the editor that he'd rather
the information not appear in print, since he wanted time to line
up political support for the company's decision, which was likely
to encounter stiff environmental opposition.
News of the company's plans leaked out
two months after Garcia first learned of them, thanks to an investigation
by a local environmental group. Their digging yielded more bad
news; as Garcia explained in a column to the paper's readers (1/29/04):
"Worse, in an incredible lapse of judgment, I offered to
send a draft [to Wynn] of whatever editorial resulted."
* New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson no doubt
appreciated the effusive speech that welcomed him to the Border
Governors Conference. Richardson, attendees learned, "has
done more for New Mexico in two legislative sessions than any
previous governor accomplished in decades." No small praise,
especially considering the source: Monica Armenta, an anchor at
New Mexico TV station KOB. To make matters worse, Armenta didn't
even write the words herself-that was left to the governor's staff.
Armenta told the American Journalism Review (1011/04) that she'd
learned her lesson, though she added, "I've done hundreds
of these over the years, and so have many other people in this
* Upsetting the political applecart is
part of a journalist's job-but it might cost them that job.
Rep. Nick Smith's (R.- Mich.) intention
to vote against George W. Bush's 2003 Medicare drug plan didn't
sit well with powerful GOP lawmakers, who Smith said made him
an offer: If he changed his vote, his son Brad, who wanted to
run for his father's congressional seat, would receive $100,000
in campaign support. Smith not only stuck to his "no"
vote, he told people about the alleged bribe, with the story eventually
making its way into the news, including a Robert Novak syndicated
Soon afterward, Smith tried to revise
his tale, issuing a press release (12/4/03) that denied the $100,000
offer. But reporter Kevin Vandenbroek of radio station WKZO (12/1/03)
came forward with evidence that made Smith's new denial hard to
swallow: a tape of an interview where Smith discussed the "$100,000-plus"
offered to his son's campaign.
Vandenbroek's scoop, however, didn't please
everyone at his station; according to Slate (3/24/04), while some
station officials were proud of his work, "there were others
that might have been uncomfortable that it was focusing on a member
of the Republican Party." A few weeks later, Vandenbroek
reported that George W. Bush made several dubious claims in an
interview with NBC, which prompted a phone call to the station
from local Republican officials. Vandenbroek told Slate that after
that incident, "I got called in and told to stay away from
politics." The station eventually dismissed Vandenbroek for
violating company email policy following an exchange with a far-right
author who refused to appear on the station.
As Slate's Timothy Noah put it, "Vandenbroek's
prominence in reporting a major political story ought to make
WKZO proud. Instead, it apparently made the Kalamazoo radio station
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