News They Shouldn’t Use

The doleful tale of Jessica Sweedler has been told from coast to coast. Deceived by e-mail that looked like it came from her bank, she replied with the personal information it requested. More than $1,000 in bogus charges then appeared on her credit card. “I really felt suckered,” she said.

TV “CyberGuy” Kurt Knutsson spread Sweedler’s story last November when he warned of the perils of phishing and told his viewers how to fight back. CyberGuy’s home station is the Tribune Company’s KTLA in Los Angeles, and at least four other Tribune stations also carried his report–WPIX in New York, KWGN in Denver, WXIN in Indianapolis, and WGN in Chicago. But the report wasn’t quite what it seemed.

Sweedler’s real enough–she’s marketing director for Meals on Wheels in San Francisco. And she insists she did get taken. But by the old-fashioned definition of news, CyberGuy’s report wasn’t. It was–and a pro like Sweedler surely appreciates this–marketing. Instead of digging for his own story, Knutsson adapted a video news release. VNRs look so much like straightforward news reports that you probably wouldn’t know the difference unless someone told you. This one had been created by D S Simon Productions for Trend Micro Software, a firm that makes a $50 Internet security program called PC-Cilin.

Knutsson reedited the VNR, dropping the narration of “Jim Lawrence” and writing his own and briefly discussing the problem of phishing live on camera. But when his report got rolling, there wasn’t much that didn’t come from Trend Micro. Where Lawrence had intoned that “software like PC-Cilin is your first line of defense,” Knutsson advised that “while software may help protect you, ultimately it all comes down to common sense.” But a Trend Micro security guru still weighed in on ways the public could protect itself, and PC-Cilin remained the one product mentioned by name.

Sweedler’s overnight fame wasn’t limited to cities where the Tribune Company owns stations. According to a new survey by the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin, versions of the VNR were carried by stations in Colorado Springs, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Saint Louis, where a reporter simply replaced Lawrence’s voice with his own. In Oklahoma City a KOKH news anchor introduced Lawrence as if he were a KOKH reporter.

In my own quick online search I also found Sweedler’s story posted on the Web site of a station in central Florida and attributed to CyberGuy and on the Web site of a station in South Bend, Indiana and attributed to a prizewinning local reporter. This reporter’s integrity shone through: all mentions of PC-Cilin and Trend Micro had been deleted.

No one had heard of VNRs until a couple years ago, when it came out that the Bush administration was making heavy use of them to push its programs and a former network reporter gained overnight notoriety for her slick narration and misdirecting sign-off–“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” Among journalists a debate broke out over whom to blame most: the government for mendacious packaging or TV news shops for lazily enabling the mendacity. Some members of Congress said the Federal Communications Commission should step in.

But the Center for Media and Democracy reports that the “dominant purveyors of VNRs” are corporations. For ten months, ending in March, CMD tracked 36 VNRs, which it says is about 1 percent of the VNRs that arrive in TV newsrooms in a year. It says that all but 2 of the 49 clients that paid for these VNRs were corporations, that 69 TV stations broadcast some version of them a total of 87 times, and that in no case was the client ever identified.

CyberGuy’s report on phishing was the only time CMD could identify a VNR showing up on a Chicago station. WGN simply aired what CyberGuy offered, and news director Greg Caputo says that if CMD had bothered to call him he’d have argued that Knutsson played down PC-Cilin and offered useful advice. He told me, “When you screen the piece you’re kind of left scratching your head–what fact in the piece isn’t true? What fact in his story is phony or false or fake?”

Knutsson didn’t return my e-mail or phone calls. KTLA’s news director, Jeff Wald, did. Like Caputo, he argued that CyberGuy delivered a legitimate report, making a minor mistake by not mentioning where a “relatively small amount” of the piece came from. I’d call it a relatively large amount, but you can decide for yourself by reading the CMD report and watching both versions of the Sweedler VNR at, a CMD Web site.

Wald and I agree on the principle at stake. “There are some stations that have abused VNRs–that’s really the issue,” he said. “If you don’t do any journalism and put it up on the air as if it’s your work, that’s a big deal to me, a real big deal.”

You might conclude that’s just about what Knutsson did.

The First Step Is Admitting You Have a Problem

Drawing lines is so 20th century. On April 13 Charlie Rose aired an interview with the CEOs of Verizon and Google.

The conversation knocked around some interesting ideas on new technology, and excerpts showed up in the April 24 New Yorker–in a four-page ad for Lexus. The interview was one of four cooked up by Lexus, by Conde Nast Media Group, which publishes the New Yorker, and by Rose’s home station, WNET in New York, for a series they’re calling “Road to Innovation.” The series “represents excellence in innovation,” says Lexus’s vice president for marketing in an announcement I found online that hails Conde Nast as a company “known for its leadership in integrated marketing opportunities.” As they say about a lot of things these days, the “Road to Innovation” is what it is.

VNRs are what they are. D S Simon Productions boasts of its prowess in creating VNRs that deliver. “Our strategy,” its Web site explains, “is to involve news decision-makers in the VNR process before scripts are written or any production dollars are spent.” VNRs are expensive–why waste time and money producing one nobody wants? As it is, president Doug Simon told me, “if you get one in 30 or 40 stations to use a VNR it’s a success.” Simon declares VNRs the “most accurate” of PR tools. “Do you want to know why? Because of their transparency. If I’m putting out a tape that has the name of the company that funds it it’s got to be accurate or I’m going to be ripped.”

Transparency–the lack of it–is what CMD is complaining about. The D S Simon Web site assures visitors that “our strong ethical stance on industry issues has enhanced our reputation with the media and clients.” Simon calls himself a “disclosure hawk.”

Publicists have their own professional organization, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and it has a code of ethics–not so exacting as the one written by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), but still a code. And provisions such as “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public” and pledges such as to “work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession” strike some members as compromised by VNRs.

“VNRs are an ethical, credible, and viable PR tool,” says Michael Cherenson, chair of the PRSA’s advocacy advisory board. “The key is, there needs to be full disclosure. It’s incumbent upon the source of information, and also it’s the responsibility of the media, the TV stations, to fully disclose to the audience the source of information.”

In March last year PRSA called a VNR “summit” and invited the SPJ. Kevin Smith, a journalism professor who chaired SPJ’s ethics committee in the mid-90s, decided to go. “If PR people are coming to journalists and saying, ‘We’d like to sit down with you and talk about ethics,’ that’s an invitation we can’t pass up,” he told me. He discovered “commonalities” at the summit, and afterward he proposed that SPJ stage a panel discussion on VNRs at its 2005 national convention in Las Vegas and invite PRSA to participate.

That didn’t happen. Smith ran up against members of the SPJ ethics committee who don’t want to touch PRSA with a ten-foot pole. “I didn’t see the point of it,” says committee member Peter Sussman. “We have two entirely different roles. They’re trying to sell us something. We’re trying to get accurate news reports. In no sense is it a common cause or common pursuit.” Committee chairman Gary Hill, an investigative TV reporter in Minneapolis, told me, “We want to level our criticism at the bad practitioners in our field, not theirs. ‘Let them clean up their own house’ is the emerging attitude. We have a lot of work to do on our end.”

Sussman’s a former newspaper reporter who helped write SPJ’s code of ethics. “There’s no reason to write a video news release unless you expect it to be picked up on the air,” he says. “You can give the same information and much more in a printed press release.” Sussman’s trying to goad SPJ’s ethics committee into making a strong statement against VNRs, and he’ll probably succeed. He recently told the other members of the committee by e-mail to check out CMD’s “damning report,” and committee member Louis Hodges, a college professor, responded by calling VNRs “this most serious threat to journalism and, therefore, to democracy.”

Sussman parts company with the CMD on one specific. The Web site where the CMD report is laid out urges the public to “tell the Federal Communications Commission that fake news must stop.” Sussman doesn’t want the FCC anywhere near the VNR debate. “It’s a journalism ethics issue,” he says. “It’s not a government ethics issue.” Government isn’t journalism’s big brother.

Smith thinks SPJ is missing an opportunity by stiffing the flacks. “For a very long time we’ve preached being proactive in the pursuit of our ethics,” he tells me. “That means educating people ahead of time to the point where they’re not making ethical mistakes. This committee wants to send out a press release and publicly chastise TV stations for using these VNRs. My point is, why don’t we sit down with PR people and stop the supply of VNRs so we’re not standing here calling people out on the carpet?”

Journalists and publicists know how to hold hands. The same jour-nalism schools send both out into the world. Many publicists are former journalists who crossed over to the dark side for the money. When the Oklahoma chapter of SPJ awards its annual journalism prizes, three of them are for public relations. (Is it a coincidence that the CMD report identified KOKH in Oklahoma City as the “top repeat offender” for airing six of the VNRs tracked by CMD, five of them “in their entirety,” each time with the original narration?)

Those SPJ prizes honoring PR in Oklahoma are an anomaly, and that’s a good thing. The day no dog-matist is around to insist that there’s gotta be a line, there won’t be a line.

News Bite

The Chicago chapter of SPJ, the Headline Club, didn’t give anyone an ethics in journalism award this year. “We know there are good, ethical journalists out there,” said local ethics committee chair Casey Bukro in a Headline Club press release. “We’re just trying to find them and recognize them.” The Headline Club didn’t have to go public with its failure to find any good, ethical journalists. But it did. That should take care of next year’s award.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.