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Of Critics and Corporate Bosses

September 23, 2002|WILLIAM CHITWOOD

Is it mere coincidence or do The Times' TV critics feel so self-conscious about their own corporate cross-promotion and de facto journalistic limitations that readers got not one but two hypocritical homilies on media ethics the same week?

First came Brian Lowry's take on the popularity (and scam potential) of lucrative TV talk shows starring psychics who claim to contact the dead ("Room for Doubt?," Sept. 4). Lowry dutifully recited the by-now perfunctory Calendar mantra/disclaimer: that one of the programs in his piece ("Beyond With James Van Praagh") will appear on KTLA, which is owned by Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times.

Upon quoting a professional debunker of the paranormal, Tribune employee Lowry is told by Tribune executive Donna Harrison that although there are rip-offs and fakes, she'll "control the integrity of 'Beyond With James Van Praagh.' " Still skeptical, Lowry laments that readers should not expect "equal time" for those--like him--with doubts.

The ethical and institutional quandary Lowry found himself in was evident in his sarcastic apology, wherein he confessed that dollars--not truth--seem to be the primary motivation behind such programming, and that "as a Tribune employee and stockholder, I couldn't be prouder."

I could have sworn I felt the rumble of the late Fred Friendly--CBS News producer, executive, journalism professor and Socratic conscience of American news media--turning over in his grave.

Two days later arrived Howard Rosenberg's homily on the ethics of journalism ("A Journalist Breaks the Golden Rule," Sept. 6). Rosenberg tellingly introduced the piece by saying that "many of us in the media are potentially compromised ... because we work for conglomerates whose sprawling interests cut across our news beats."

I thought at first that he was apologizing for Lowry's recent predicament, but Rosenberg's lament centered on the alleged sins of reporter Anna Song at KATU-TV in Oregon City, Ore., whom Rosenberg zapped for creating a "conflict of interest" when she gave a eulogy for two girls whose murders she had been covering for the station.

"Reporters," wrote Rosenberg, "are not hired to write columns or commentaries. They report stories, which are meant to exclude opinion. Commentaries (like this one) are written by columnists and labeled as opinion."

Really? Then why go to all the trouble of making a long-distance phone call to KATU? Rosenberg could have made a local call or taken a Tribune-provided car over to Tribune-owned KTLA and asked why millions of viewers have to listen to news anchor-windbag Hal Fishman morph from purported "objective" newsman to passionate commentator--not occasionally, but five nights a week--on our publicly owned airwaves.

At least KATU's journalistic faux pas had an element of heartfelt community sentiment, whereas Fishman's blustering commentaries reflect personal piques and sweeping pronouncements on everything from local politics to international diplomacy.

Certainly Rosenberg knows that at newspapers, including The Times, editorial and freelance opinion writers work independently of news managers. But Fishman wears both hats at KTLA. And unlike a newspaper's daily letters/opinion forum, KTLA--a TV station with millions of viewers--affords no rebuttal time for viewers who disagree with Fishman.

Since there is no journalistic fire wall between Hal Fishman the news editor and his opinionated doppelganger, one would think that professional media critics like Lowry and Rosenberg might pontificate on this blatant conflict of interest going on loudly next door under the same corporate roof.

In fact, the only entity with the power to criticize or challenge KTLA in print is The Times--which itself has become a nightly feature on KTLA wherein Times reporters preview their print stories.

If that's not a potential conflict of interest, then try to imagine KTLA reporter Ron Olsen bellowing: "And now an exclusive preview of a scandal uncovered here at KTLA by the L.A. Times."

Rosenberg eloquently expressed concern about "something dangerous that is edging forward nationally: a blurring of lines separating news media from newsmakers in television. It's a growing trend that threatens to erode the independence of journalists working on the small screen."

That fuzziness also threatens to erode the objectivity of those once considered the best watchdogs of public interest: journalists at newspapers not hamstrung by incestuous corporate relationships.

William Chitwood is a private-sector language arts and social studies instructor. He lives in La Canada.

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