Once journalists endeavored-at significant economic sacrifice-to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. But much of today's corporate-controlled TV journalism seems to be defined not by avoiding cross-interests but promoting them.
And many who should be on the front lines in the battle to preserve journalistic integrity not only fail to voice loud protests but defend this "synergy" as they elevate corporate interests to news events. And we've been told that, in some organizations, if news executives want to advance into the business side of television, they'd better be willing to do things a news purist might not be comfortable with.
Of course, some attention to the business side is necessary. No matter how good it strives to be, if a newscast is not financially successful, it ultimately will serve no one. But instead of the fabled wall separating the "church and state" of editorial and marketing, there is a door marked "Enter" and increasing financial pressure to do so.
We were struck on our visit to the Promax convention last month with how often the marketers there were encouraged to enlist the news department to cross-promote a new syndicated show. We shouldn't have been, of course. For years, sweeps periods have been filled with "news" stories about the casts or subjects of shows or movies leading into those newscasts.
A story last week in this magazine detailed the promotional blitz that accompanied the rollouts of Survivor and Big Brother. Given that cross-platform promotion is the avowed aim of CBS and its co-owned cable networks, online services, radio and TV stations and outdoor advertising companies, we shouldn't be surprised that the news department would be a part of the grand design.
Still, it's one thing to use a billboard to promote a TV show. It's another to use a news story.
Local news as promoter of prime time is everywhere. And everywhere it is a potential threat to credibility. Some entertainment stories are legitimate news. Some aren't. Mix the two, and the viewers can never be sure whether the decision to run a story is based on news value or shareholder value. And credibility built over decades is at stake.