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The High Price of Advocacy

October 28, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

I'm fighting back!

So naturally I sought out the Internet, clicking on the new Web site for Fight Back!, the multimedia consumer-help operation of David Horowitz, who once covered this beat in Los Angeles for newscasts on KNBC-TV and KCBS-TV, and is famous nationally due to his radio commentaries, newspaper column, frequent TV appearances and former syndicated TV series.

He's the man--the people's maven whose Web site urges: "File your complaint with and put the power of David Horowitz behind you."

That sold me, so I went to his Home Page, where Horowitz himself says: "If you've been ripped off--you can file your complaint here with me. All complaints may be reviewed by my staff and yours may be selected for action by my Response Team."

Although I hadn't been ripped off, the notion of having Horowitz's power behind me was such a heady prospect that I began filing my complaint anyway.

Instead of the "quick complaint form," I opted for the "step-by-step form" and followed the directions ("Describe the problem clearly and to the point").

My problem, I began, clearly and to the point, is David Horowitz.

Not Horowitz in any personal way--I barely know him--but Horowitz being a paid spokesman for No on Prop. 9, the big-budget, big utilities-driven campaign to zap the underdog California ballot initiative calling for a 20% slash in electricity rates for private utility customers and an end to surcharges levied on ratepayers to pay for nuclear power plants. Opponents call it bull.

In any case, this time David and Goliath are on the same side.

The anti-Prop. 9 campaign has paid Horowitz $106,000, which he has acknowledged to members of the media, and which must be disclosed under the law.

In return for this fee, Horowitz has gone on radio as an advocate, appears in a No on Prop. 9 TV spot that's being shown widely and stars in a half-hour anti-9 infomercial that he helped create and that is getting some play across the state. It features him conducting scripted interviews and sitting at a desk in front of his Fight Back! logo while attacking "the hidden rip-off" of Prop. 9 and passionately responding to setup questions from person-on-the-street interviews. His answers blast the questions, and the initiative, out of the park.

My problem with this is unrelated to the merits or demerits of Prop. 9, which voters will sort out for themselves at the ballot box Tuesday. It relates only to Horowitz's participation, which further clouds and devalues the line separating newsman from pitchman, and would do so even if he were paid to tout Prop. 9 instead of criticize it.

The news business on television is nothing if not a thickening, homogenous stew of information and promotion, one indistinguishable from the other. And Horowitz is not the first journalist or former journalist to straddle the line. CBS News lets "CBS News Sunday Morning" anchor and radio commentator Charles Osgood do commercials, for example. After retiring from ABC News, David Brinkley's next regular TV gig was as a commercial spokesman for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. And Linda Ellerbee and Faith Daniels did some selling in commercials after leaving the TV news business.

What all of them have done is make money by trading on their credibility as journalists, just as doctorly Robert Young soothed coffee drinkers on behalf of Maxwell House and other celebrity profiting from a commercial endorsement.

The difference is that Osgood still works as a journalist. And Horowitz--in his ongoing quasi-journalist's role as a consumer advocate--operates from a position of trust that he attained as a full-fledged consumer reporter.

So he's wearing two hats simultaneously.

The more I got into this, the more I doubted that my complaint would be selected for action by the Response Team. So I decided to address the matter with Horowitz himself.

But first I called his former boss, Irwin Safchik, the news director at KNBC who turned Horowitz into a consumer reporter in the 1970s. Although long unshackled from the business, Safchik remains an astute observer of TV news.

"Sure it bothers me," he said about Horowitz's paid anti-Prop. 9 tasks. He emphasized, though, that Horowitz, not the public, would be the ultimate loser here. "It raises questions about his credibility. Now if David Horowitz tells me that some product is unfair or whatever, I'll think--which I would not have done previously--that maybe someone is paying him to plug a different product. I'm not implying that he is corrupted, but he shouldn't do things like this."

Now Horowitz faces the glare.

"I think this is enhancing my credibility," he said about his anti-Prop. 9 involvement when I reached him at his Fight Back! office. He said he approached the anti-Prop. 9ers, not vice versa, and that he did so only after reading the initiative and just about gagging. "I went to them and asked if they could use me in the campaign," he said.

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