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Reporter or Salesman?
By Joanne Ostrow
Denver Post TV/Radio Critic

"Hi, I'm Tony Zarrella." The salesman in the brown suit introduces himself, then launches into his pitch.

"Minimum 19-inch seats!" he says. A video screen that is "a sight to behold!" "Living-room quality accommodations." "Gracious lobby space." All in all, "your experience will be one of luxury!" "Take advantage of this opportunity now!"

He's not Dealin' Doug or Jake Jabs; he's not selling cars or furniture. He's KUSA's sports anchor and he's selling Broncos seats.

Plush commercial

The KUSA sportscaster is featured in a lavish, custom-made commercial, Fed Ex'd to 24,000 season-ticket holders last week, promoting the purchase of seats in the new football stadium. Zarrella appears on camera coaching fans to spring for expensive club-level seats in the coming season. "As you can see, the club level is the place to be."

In an appalling breach of journalistic ethics, Zarrella has loaned whatever credibility he had as a local sports anchor to the task of sales. He is hawking seats on behalf of a team he is assigned to cover.

"Reserve now before they're gone!" Zarrella says on camera.

KUSA News Director Patti Dennis denies there is any conflict. "I don't see it as a commercial," she said Monday. "We find it informational. I would disagree that Tony became a spokesman for the team."

Zarrella, sports anchor at KMGH from 1995 to 1998, joined KUSA in April 1999 as weekend sports anchor. Last month he was given the title of main sports anchor. He did not return calls for comment.

The slick video, roughly 10 minutes in length, was produced by KUSA with additional animation by an outside firm. Neither Zarrella nor KUSA was paid.

"It was done in-kind as part of being closely associated with the team," KUSA's Dennis said.

The video includes computer-generated graphics to make the unfinished stadium look populated. Editing magic shows fans inside the club level, making purchases at a concession stand and meeting one another.

"The excitement of the game will rush to greet you ...," Zarella says. The substantially more expensive club level seats can be had at a discount if purchased before July 20, he notes.

Taints organization

Zarrella got a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from Emerson College in Boston. He should have been taught that reporters - even TV news anchors - don't do commercials for subjects they may end up covering. That includes promotional videos. The idea is to keep the relationship pure: A sports reporter must be free to question and criticize the organization, the team, even the stadium.

What next? Paula Woodward doing infomercials for the city of Denver about hard-working municipal employees? We won't hold our breath. But the Zarrella appearance taints the entire station as a news organization. If news is to be something more than marketing and advertising, the line between commercials and journalism must be honored.

"I don't think it's an implied or direct endorsement," Dennis said. She likens KUSA's participation to its ability to objectively raise questions about Ocean Journey's treatment of animals, even though the station was a philanthropic contributor.

Does the Zarrella commercial compromise KUSA's objectivity? It certainly raises questions about the station's journalistic independence and priorities. Viewers' can't be blamed for perceiving Zarrella as less a journalist than a fan - if not part of the Broncos marketing department - after this performance.

"The Broncos look forward to seeing you there!" he concludes.

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