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"Where news comes first" is the motto trumpeted by WTVJ-TV (Channel 6). But for three days beginning September 5, it didn't. After the weathercast that evening (and after the winning lottery numbers were announced, and after the edifying assurance that "closed captioning [is] brought to you by Wrol Up shades and shutters," and after a paid commercial break, and after a promo for the Miami Herald's Weekend section and its coverage of movies), anchor Tony Segreto told viewers that the "big championship fight is just 48 hours away," then turned to the giant in-studio monitor and said something odd for a newsman: "Our own Craig Minervini is there courtesy of South Florida Cable Operators."
Minervini, standing beneath the glowing neon sign of the MGM Grand, beamed. "Well Tony, there are tough gigs and there are tough gigs," he bantered, and ended his report with a suggestion to viewers: "If you're not heading out here to Vegas, you can catch the fight on pay-per-view -- just call your local cable operator."
Subsequent dispatches from Minervini included the reporter informing viewers, "Ringside seats are going for one thousand dollars. Of course you can catch the bout on pay-per-view. Your local cable operator has all the details." He also interviewed promoter Don King, who in typically understated fashion compared the event to performances by Bach and Beethoven and urged, "Call your local cable operator. Make certain you be there on the screen -- for those who can't be on the scene."
Shilling the $44.95 ($39.95 in advance) pay-per-view package was part of the deal the station cut with the cable operators: The station would have most if not all its expenses paid if the reporter mentioned pay-per-view and how to obtain it during his broadcast. Airfare, hotel, access to editing equipment, and free satellite time were covered, according to a spokeswoman for TCI of South Florida, one of the eight cable companies that contributed to the co-op arrangement. (A sports producer for WTVJ values the tab at somewhere between $5000 and $15,000.) The need for added promotion was apparent: Variety magazine reported that the Peter McNeeley fight, Tyson's first post-incarceration bout, generated 1.8 million viewers; the Frank Bruno fight this year inspired just 1.4 million buys. Revenues were falling nearly as fast as Tyson's opponents.
Federal Communications Commission regulations state that if programming is exchanged for money or other considerations, that fact must be disclosed to the viewers, and announcements like Segreto's "courtesy of" are common on game shows, broadcasts of sporting events, et cetera. But news programs historically have shied away from accepting payment for coverage, with the aim of keeping their distance from the subjects they report on.
Journalism professor Sig Splichal questions the wisdom of such arrangements on the part of news organizations. "The reporter ought to be working only for the news organization -- that should be the sole loyalty," says Splichal, who teaches ethics at the University of Miami. "When someone else is paying the expenses, there's a potential conflict of interest. It makes the reporting suspect. What if the reporter had seen questionable behavior by the cable company -- would that get reported?" he asks.
It's no secret that sports reporters have always been treated well by the people and the teams they cover: no charge for plane rides with the team, free food in the press box. All news organizations struggle with the ethics of taking free tickets to events they cover (including this newspaper, which allows writers and critics to accept free admission to events they're covering), but most stop short of putting promotion within their editorial products in exchange for expenses.
"Are you asking me if I have a problem with this arrangement?" questions Regent Ducas, executive sports producer at WTVJ. "The answer is no." Ducas sees it as a win-win situation for the station and the cable company. "We cover a major sporting event and we're saving costs doing so. And on their end, we're obviously telling people that the fight can only be seen on pay-per-view. I don't see it as a promotion."
Media critics, though, view such arrangements as tantamount to "advertorials," so called because they involve the convergence of the advertising and editorial realms. And their effect on the media in general is corrosive, says Ralph Barney, editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. "Viewers say, 'Hey, you can't trust the media, they're in the hip pocket of big-money interests like the cable companies,'" Barney contends. "When that credibility declines, the news media is less effective because viewers believe less, then they watch less and stay away from news in general." With the explosion of media outlets that has accompanied the cable and Internet boom, news organizations are scrambling to stay in business and generate profits, and Barney believes increased competition will continue to push aside journalistic ethics.
To the station's credit, after Seldon stumbled to defeat in the first round, Channel 6 aired negative reaction from fans. Of course, there was no actual coverage of the fight: Video of the event wasn't released for broadcast to those who hadn't paid.
Splichal wonders why WTVJ (owned by NBC, which in turn is a division of corporate giant General Electric) would put itself in such a dubious position. "They fly that helicopter around, so it's certainly a viable organization financially," he observes. "To demean the institution for a few thousand dollars is tacky."
At the end of the telecast that included Minervini's story about the $1000 tickets, WTVJ's Geri Helfman added her own unscripted comment. "I hope they get their money's worth," said the anchor. And as if on cue, a message appeared across the lower part of viewers' TV screens: "Geri's hair by: Ugo Di Roma Salon.