When Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post last month broke the story of WFLA-TV Tampa, Fla.'s selling commercials masquerading as program segments on its morning show, the story got considerable attention. Last week, the station increased the visibility of its disclaimers. But the story is important for more than just one station's horrible judgment.
The bigger issue is that the co-owned newspaper did not break this legitimate media story unfolding right in its own building. It's like a TV station's not getting a crew to the fire in its lobby. When the paper did get around to reporting it, its version read like a corporate press release. This is a case study of why TV/newspaper crossownership is bad for democracy and an informed citizenry and why it is important to retain the ban on the right to own both a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.
As Kurtz revealed, you talk to a salesperson, write a check, and WFLA-TV airs the piece about your company. Despite a small disclaimer in the closing credits, most viewers of Daybreak would be shocked to know that these features were booked by ad sales reps, not program producers. What a great deal: the halo effect of free media with the guarantee of paid media that your story not only will run but will run as you want it to.
This is no rinky-dink station. WFLA-TV is the NBC affiliate in Tampa-St. Petersburg, the 13th-largest market. It is owned by Media General, which also owns the Tampa Tribune (under a grandfathered right). The Tribune and WFLA-TV have been the centerpiece of the company's campaign to lift the ban on TV/newspaper crossownership.
The station initially wrapped itself in the defense that, since Daybreak is not a news program, this is an acceptable practice. In a letter to the Post, Media General CEO J. Stewart Bryan III argued that, because the program is not "news," the paid content is not misleading. The program may be isolated from the news department, but that doesn't matter. The real issue is deception. The heart of the value to advertisers is commercials that don't look like commercials, and that makes them deceptive. Responding to the criticism, WFLA-TV last week said it has begun adding a commercial disclaimer at the start of each paid segment.
When the Tribune ran a story the day after the Post did, aside from Kurtz, only Media General executives were quoted. The headline "Daytime is not a news show, WFLA Explains" supported the company's strategy of framing the issue narrowly as one of news vs. non-news. The WFLA-TV general manager, the Media General vice president for broadcast news, and the president of the broadcast division were all quoted explaining why it's OK to be in the pay-for-play business. The story quoted no media critics, viewers or competitors who might have explained why it's a violation of viewer trust to offer paid messages dressed in the clothes of station-selected programming.
It is ironic that Media General, which wants so much to see the crossownership rules eliminated, has inadvertently provided the most telling argument for retaining them. Without competitive, independently owned local newspapers and TV stations, a community's dirty little secrets will stay secret.
Rose was director of public affairs for the Federal Communications Commission from 1997 to 1999.