An anchor at KTLA-TV received a customized dining-room makeover worth more than $10,000 for her own home in what a local furniture merchant says was meant to be a special deal in exchange for favorable coverage on the station's "Morning News." Instead, the arrangement soured when the story never aired, leaving the Tribune Co.-owned station scrambling late this week to right a tangled situation that could raise new questions about its ethical practices.
Anchor Michaela Pereira volunteered her Pasadena home for the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"-style story, which was taped in September with the cooperation of Los Angeles-area furniture retailer IdentityCraft.
Allen Smith, a co-owner of IdentityCraft, said that he agreed to participate after a KTLA producer approached him with the idea because he believed the promotion would be good for business. "We pulled out all the stops," Smith said. A designer visited Pereira's home for a consultation, and the company provided custom furniture and draperies, and also some non-customized accessories for her dining area, according to Smith.
Months went by and the segment never aired, however, and Smith said he began to feel "totally duped." "I told them, if it doesn't air, she's going to need to be treated like a paying customer," he said.
KTLA producer Rich Goldner, who oversees "Morning News" for the station's news department, said Thursday that Pereira was selecting which items will be returned to Smith's store; IdentityCraft is due to pick up those items next week. The station said midday Friday that Pereira had paid for the remaining items in her home, although Smith could not immediately be reached to verify this.
"The intention was to use her house as a set" for the story, Goldner said. "Then she could keep the items she wanted ... she could pay for the items." He added that it was always assumed Pereira would return some things: "Michaela was not prepared to spend that kind of money" for the makeover.
At many news organizations, journalists are not allowed to accept any gifts from a person or organization with a stake in stories they are covering. Tribune, which also publishes the Los Angeles Times, has an ethics policy that governs employees facing potential conflicts of interests.
Pereira, a former TechTV anchor who joined KTLA in February 2004, was one of three on-air personalities who received free overnight stays and gifts from the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena after the "Morning News" trumpeted the hotel's $19-million renovation, the Pasadena Star-News revealed last week.
Goldner said he decided to kill the home makeover segment because coverage of Hurricane Katrina had taken up so much airtime on "Morning News" last fall. Both the producer and KTLA spokeswoman Carolyn Aguayo characterized Smith as "disgruntled" because the story never ran; however, he was not the source who first alerted The Times about the arrangement and expressed surprise when reached by phone Thursday.
It remained unclear why the items had still not been paid for more than five months after the taping. Pereira did not respond to a message left on her office voicemail.
When asked about the payment delay, Aguayo replied in an e-mail: "We never received the invoice until December. The segment producer was hoping the segment would air sometime in the future despite [Goldner's] decision not to air it." Smith said the station never officially told him that the story was killed, but as the weeks dragged on he began to step up pressure that producers either air the piece or pay him for his furniture.
Smith said that he told Pereira he had no interest in taking the customized items back from her because they had been used and were created specifically for her house, and were therefore not easily sold to another customer.
Reached late Thursday, Smith confirmed that Pereira was working with his employees to return some of the noncustomized items to his store. Smith said that he received a check Friday from Pereira to cover the customized merchandise.
Pereira was also at the center of a controversy earlier this year when she joined veteran broadcaster Bob Eubanks in the booth during KTLA's high-rated coverage of the Rose Parade on Jan. 2.
Pereira supplanted longtime Eubanks co-host Stephanie Edwards, who reported from the parade sidelines in heavy rain. Many viewers complained about the switch.