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By Charles Jaco
St. Louis
But Who's the Hooker and Who's the John?

Imagine this: a major American city is holding a mayoral election. It's laced with charges of corruption and phony voter registrations. One candidate is black, the other white, and the city is polarized. One of the candidates holds a fund-raiser. Two journalists from different broadcast outlets, one newsreader who doubles as a broadcast personality, and a station general manager are all there.

They aren't on the job. They aren't covering the race. They're simply there. One presumes that either they or their escorts support the candidate and gave him money. None of the four apparently sees anything wrong with what they did. They end up listed in a local newspaper as attendees.

Now further imagine that the old school broadcast ethical handbooks for employees were scrapped by the conglomerate corporate owners in favor of a unified "synergy" strategy. Or in plain English--if it doesn't generate profit, don't bother us. Layoffs from years past have left their newsrooms short-handed, so if the employees are pulled from covering the mayor's race, the news operations don't have enough bodies to take up the slack. What do you do?

Like they say on Law and Order, "A story ripped from the headlines," since this imaginary scenario is true. The spookiest part, of course, is that no one involved apparently stopped to have an internal dialogue:

"This is sleazy. It compromises me ethically."


"How can anyone trust anything I report on? How can they trust anything my station says? I'm giving this candidate my endorsement by being here."


"You don't get it, do you?"


"Screw it, where's the bar?"

This is just one small example of what happens when enough people in broadcast news don't care enough. But then, why should they, given what's led to this:

* The Revolving Door--ex-politcos make a bundle becoming journalists. George Stephanopoulos morphs from Clinton wunderkind to ABC talking head. Roger Ailes works for Reagan and discovers Rush Limbaugh (putting him in the same class as the man who discovered botulism) and now heads Fox News. From Tim Russert to Dick Morris, the woods are full of them, and the border between politics and journalism no longer requires a visa;

* The Cocktail Circuit--policy makers, politicos, and journalists are schmooze together. Alan's Greenspan's wife, an NBC correspondent, tosses him a birthday party and the glitterati like Peter Jennings are there. Does socializing with the high and mighty of public policy compromise you as a reporter? You tell me;

* Greed is Good, 2001--in their rush to downsize staff, synergize parts, and supersize profits, conglomerate executives have sent the message that anything not directly connected to shareholder equity is irrelevant. A culture of profit first, profit last, profit always has no time for the nicities of ethical standards (unless, of course, it can get you sued, which costs you money);

* The Camel's Nose--like the Bedouins say, if you let the camel's nose in the tent, his arse will follow. Some broadcast operations (here, we're almost exclusively talking about radio) allow--and even require--people who read news to read commercials. The newsreaders and their bosses look at it as just part of the job. The audience hears it as an endorsement from someone they trust of a particular product. If people in any way connected to news can endorse cars or herbal remedies or carpet cleaning services, it's a tip-toe to endorsing mayors and congressmen and senators;

* Look, a Water-skiing Squirrel--squirrels on water-skis, St. Bernards who snowboard, news features behind the scenes at Survivor or Temptation Island--none of this is news. All of it clutters newscasts. But focus groups show the audience loves animals, kids, and the bizarre. As newscasts are trivialized, along with the people who work in them, the sense of what's important becomes trivial, inch by inch.

I have no idea what, if anything, will happen to any of the broadcasters who noshed on little weenies at the fund- raiser. Two are straight-out journalists. One is an amphibian who reads news, commercials, and hosts charity events. One is an executive.

Any bets on which one won't be reprimanded?


Via: Shoptalk Magazine, February 26, 2001

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