The New York Times, the most powerful newspaper on earth, reels under the weight of scandal, its top editors cashiered. Journalists across the nation grope to undo the collateral damage and retain the public’s confidence.
Over the objections of 90 percent of those who commented, the Federal Communications Commission votes to drastically loosen rules on broadcast media ownership, an act that would hasten the dominance of a powerful few.
The president runs amok on all fronts. Wing nuts fill the airwaves with intolerance and hate, while filling Dubya’s campaign war chest with the lurid fruits afforded by the corporate colossus.
Detroit’s WWJ radio is but a small cog in the media machine that fuels the Post-Information Age.
But recent events at WWJ are very much pertinent to the larger ills plaguing the news media, the stories they report and, by extension, the remnants of our democracy.
WWJ is one of 180 stations owned by Infinity Broadcasting, six of them in the Detroit market. Infinity, in turn, is owned by Viacom, an octopus whose media interests range from MTV to Paramount Pictures.
Though it owns CBS television, news is a small sliver of Viacom’s $24.6 billion pie. News is so trivial to Viacom that last year it axed the 11 p.m. newscast on Detroit’s CBS affiliate, WWJ-TV, and replaced it with reruns of “Everyone Loves Raymond.”
So much for community service.
Infinity’s latest shenanigan is an advertising agreement with AOL for Broadband whereby the online service (a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, which owns pretty much every media property that Viacom doesn’t) will pay Infinity $15 million in the coming year for radio airtime.
Here’s the rub: WWJ internal documents indicate that the deal required newscasters to promote AOL for Broadband as though they were providing editorial endorsements. The on-air talkers were instructed to follow news stories with reminders that streaming video or audio or online chatter on the subject at hand could be had at the ubiquitous AOL for Broadband.
Though WWJ newscasters were ordered to log each of six daily AOL “mentions” as though they were advertisements, listeners were to remain blissfully ignorant of the money AOL is paying for those “mentions.”
A May 28 memo to WWJ newscasters from Georgeann Herbert, operations manager at WWJ, hailed “A Unique Partnership” between Infinity and AOL. She said the deal “may be the single largest radio marketing campaign in history.”
The memo itself raises the specter of ethical elasticity.
“While AOL would LOVE us to be ‘evangelists’ for their product, do stay close to your comfort zone when it comes to promoting material,” Herbert wrote. “Don’t do anything that makes you feel queasy from an ethical standpoint.”
Some WWJ staffers were beyond their comfort zones. They were beyond queasy. They were projectile vomiting.
“Producers are trying to do it in the most unobvious way possible,” said one WWJ worker. “It’s just wrong. It’s just really wrong. Just by putting it [ethical concerns] in the memo, it tells me Georgeann even knows it’s wrong.
“It’s just such a distasteful business anymore.”
Someone at WWJ has contacted the union.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a company put something that explosive in writing,” said Tom Carpenter, national director of news and broadcast for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
“It’s really kind of shocking that a news organization would interfere with the credibility of the people reporting the news.”
Carpenter was vague about what AFTRA might do. He noted that the union necessarily focuses on employers’ compliance with contracts, but added, “Where company policies interfere with members’ professional integrity, we will take steps to ensure that standards of journalism are protected.”
I called WWJ’s news director, Pam Woodley, who, one would expect, would be passing stones over Infinity’s stealth “advertorial” campaign.
If she was concerned, she didn’t let on.
“The person you need to talk to is Georgeann Herbert,” Woodley said. “We can’t say anything about this story, or anything.”
I think you’ll agree that’s a ludicrous comment from someone who makes her living hounding people for comments.
Herbert referred me to Dana McClintock, Infinity’s PR chief in New York City. McClintock confirmed the “business relationship” between Infinity and AOL, but said that AOL for Broadband was merely providing content to Infinity stations.
Initially, he would not address the requirement that newscasters pimp AOL for Broadband at least six times a day, specifically, according to Herbert’s memo: “two in AM Drive, two in Midday, and once in PM Drive and once in the Evening — we need to work a mention of AOL for Broadband into our programming. … At the end of each week, we need to send back to AOL three examples of ways we talked about them during the week. Once you make a mention on the air, please note it on the log.”
An e-mail from Herbert reminded WWJ newscasters: “Don’t forget those AOL for Broadband mentions! And no … saying something is ‘sponsored by AOL for Broadband’ doesn’t satisfy the requirement.”
The FCC has some surprisingly unambiguous rules designed to prevent this very thing from happening: “Listeners and viewers are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded. Thus an audience must be clearly informed that it is hearing or viewing matter which is being paid for when such is the case, and the person paying for the broadcast of matter must be clearly identified.”
Media critic Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University, was not surprised when I told him of the Infinity-AOL arrangement. Still, he termed it “one of the more flagrant” examples of an advertising incursion into news.
“The problem with advertising is not so much the spread of frank and obvious solicitation as it is the transformation of the whole culture into a vast commercial echo chamber,” Miller said. “Here you have one media giant paying another media giant to push one of the former’s properties. And they’re not even pushing it straightforwardly. This is because the scene is so cluttered with advertising that it’s far preferable for them to have it come across as editorial statement.”
As I completed reporting this piece on Monday, Infinity’s McClintock and a spokeswoman for AOL compared notes and began pummeling me with phone calls.
The last call, from McClintock, brought the disclosure that the requirement that Infinity’s news stations must participate in the AOL for Broadband “mentions” was the result of a “corporate miscommunication.”
Investigation into how the “confusion” occurred would ensue. So would remedial actions, he assured me.
The stealth ads are apparently dead on WWJ.
It was all a silly misunderstanding.
I’ll be interested to know how stations with non-news formats will conform to the unmentionable mentions. After all, the FCC rules apply to all licensees, not just news-talk stations.
In any case, I’m beginning to think there might be hope for meaningful journalism after all.