Best face forward? - Broadcasting & Cable

Best face forward?

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When last week's retransmission-consent battle between EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network and Allbritton Communications Co.'s
WJLA(TV) Washington, D.C., went public, it was reporter-anchor Doug McKelway explaining
in on-air spots -- with the aid of an unseen announcer -- the station's
position.

EchoStar subsequently complained to the Federal Communications Commission
that the station had defamed it by having "one of its respected newscasters
implore viewers 'to dump Dish Network.'"

McKelway also said he hoped Dish would "act responsibly."

EchoStar's complaint was withdrawn when the two struck a carriage deal.

Journalism critic Tom Rosenstiel suggested that using McElway raises an ethical
issue.

"Station management should never put their people in the position of being
corporate spokesman except on behalf of the newsgathering," said Rosenstiel,
whose Project for Excellence in Journalism gave WJLA an "A" in its 2001 report
card -- the top grade in the market.

"I don't think most people in the audience will be alarmed, but it's a slope
you don't want to start heading down. There's a reason that when stations used
to do editorials, it was the GM [general manager] and not the anchorman."

Allbritton general counsel Jerry Fritz said the appropriateness of McKelway
as spokesman was discussed with news and other station executives
beforehand.

"Doug was happy to do it," Fritz said. "He's the face of our station. We
certainly don't want to compromise journalistic integrity. We were careful not
to cross that line. He gave factual information, including alternative ways for
viewers to receive WJLA."

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