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Guest Commentary: Sugarcoating television news

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

At one point [on a recent] Tuesday morning, a couple of hours after KDWB-FM had dropped Krispy Kreme doughnuts from a helicopter over Woodbury, Minn., and after every local TV station had already provided a gusher of giddy pictures of grinning doughnut crazies camped out in front of Krispy Kreme’s new store-some of them chatting with the gaggle of newspaper reporters collecting their deep thoughts-a producer at KARE-TV piped up.
“OK,” she asked. “At what point is the free commercial over?”
About then, the same question was being asked, sheepishly, by every other newsroom in town. From one end of the Twin Cities to the other, allegedly hardened reporters and editors knew they had taken the bait, and almost as if they had been rented and programmed, handed a private company thousands of dollars of free advertising.
Moreover, they felt good about it. Or they did up to the point where a wave of nausea, the hypoglycemic reaction to too many doughnuts, swept over them.
By 10 p.m., Krispy Kreme hysteria had abated on local TV screens, out of embarrassment to some extent, and news of the opening was buried far down in newscasts, if not ignored completely.
The question is where was appropriate skepticism in a moment like that?
No one is disputing that doughnuts taste good, or even that Krispy Kremes taste better than most. Or even that they have some weird cult appeal.
But at some point, preferably before dispatching reporters and camera trucks to the doughnut shop’s front door, don’t professional journalists have a responsibility to ask themselves whether they are being played for saps, truckling to canny corporate promoters?
WCCO-TV News Director Maria Reitan thought so-at least initially. “When it first came up my attitude was, `We don’t need to be covering this as news.’ I was saying, `This is just a big ad.”’ Reitan’s thinking changed when it was pointed out that “people were driving three and six hours to get doughnuts and camping out front. At that point,” she said, “I had to admit it had transcended a mere business opening.”
Her counterparts at KSTP-TV and KARE-TV apparently had a similar reaction. (KMSP-TV didn’t return calls on this grave matter.)
“It’s a social phenomenon,” says KSTP’s Scott Libin. “You don’t have to understand it.
“But then you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand people’s camping out overnight for almost anything. Maybe the right to vote for the first time in South Africa, but a movie? Or doughnuts? Come on! It’s strange-and, therefore, newsworthy.”
He points out that unlike his competitors he ordered only a camera to the Krispy Kreme news site in Maple Grove, Minn., while assigning his lone morning reporter to Lakeville, Minn., and the story of that city’s passing of a hefty new school referendum.
While here and there, in print and on TV, reporters made stabs at journalism by mentioning the low-nutrition, high-caloric content of the morsels at hand, no one we heard took a slap at the elephant in the doughnut shop. That is, how they were all following a corporate promotional template like hired barkers with a script and how the same scenario has played out in every city in which the company opens a new store.
As I say, a little appropriate skepticism, please. At least some rueful anchor chatter about how “we’ll be billing Krispy Kreme for the airtime on this one.”
Mr. Libin laughed, telling how his boss, Stanley Hubbard, reigning patriarch of Hubbard Broadcasting, cornered him Tuesday and asked, “Are you on the take, with all this free advertising you’re giving these Krispy Kreme people?”
To which Mr. Libin responded with the social-phenomenon thing. “People camped outside! Waiting for doughnuts!”
“At that point,” said Mr. Libin, “Stanley turned to his longtime assistant and said, `Connie, make a note. Next time we open a business, we’ve got to hire people to sleep outside overnight. That way we’ll get some TV coverage.”’
Mr. Lambert is the media critic at the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, where this article first appeared.