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Crossing the Line

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If Abraham Lincoln thought a lawyer who handles his own case has a fool for a client, what would he have said about TV correspondents and anchors who bypass their agents and lawyers to make deals they think will pay them a lot for a few hours of work but which instead bring them a lot of grief?
He probably would have said that’s one of the things newspeople pay their agents and lawyers to prevent.
CNN anchor Aaron Brown joined 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer and 20/20 correspondent John Stossel in the small club of anchors and correspondents who had agreed to host informational videos produced by Florida-based WJMK Inc. for airing on PBS. These journalists have had to extricate themselves from the deals after learning they would be introducing two- to three-minute segments paid for and approved by drug makers and other healthcare companies.
The practices of WJMK were first revealed last week in a New York Times story that reported on the pattern of the company taping well-respected journalists making generic introductions while on a news-style set and then putting those introductions in front of a variety of messages for which companies may have paid WJMK as much as $15,000.
Mr. Safer, who apparently earned $100,000 for one day’s work, and Mr. Stossel realized later that the spots did not meet the standards-and-practices requirements of their networks and broke off their deals.
WJMK more recently approached Mr. Cronkite and Mr. Brown, who likewise notified WJMK they were backing out of their deals after learning via the Times how their work would be used.
According to people familiar with all of the cases, the journalists’ guards were lowered by the invocation of the PBS brand. “It’s tantamount to a Good Housekeeping badge of approval,” said one source intimately familiar with what is and isn’t ethically acceptable for journalists.
It appears that before accepting the job offered by WMJKnone of the men consulted their agents or lawyers, whose job it is to look out for situations that might damage the image and value of their clients.
Mr. Stossel and Mr. Brown sought their networks’ approval before accepting the WJMK offer, but since WJMK had been less than forthcoming, the decisions were made without all the pertinent information.
Mr. Stossel extricated himself from the situation and contributed his earnings to the improvement of Central Park. Mr. Brown hadn’t yet taped any introductions when the news about WJMK broke last week.
No standards-and-practices policy would have applied to Mr. Cronkite, who retired from CBS in 1981 and has since made occasional appearances on PBS and other networks.
TV news organizations tend to say little about the procedures and people involved in vetting requests for approval of outside appearances and work, but the mechanisms range from a committee of high-level news executives at CNN to a single director of broadcast standards at NBC News, David McCormick, who will investigate to gather all information relevant to the particular situation.
At CBS News, commercial messages, industrial films, testimonials and endorsements of any product or service are strictly forbidden by its standards-and-practices notebook, which was updated in 1999.
Almost any other outside commitment requires prior approval, said Linda Mason, the CBS News VP for public affairs, who described an informal case-by-case process in which “if something is questionable, we ask the next question.”
And, she said, “We think common sense should prevail.”