• On the Ethics of Paying Reporters for Favorable Stories

    April 23rd, 2005

    I’ve long felt that the news that the U.S. government has paid some reporters to become, in effect, shills for federal programs was the tip of the iceberg. Besides, it’s not as if private industry hasn’t done the very same thing.

    So I wasn’t surprised to learn that, for example, Corey Greenberg, who works these days as the tech editor for the “Today” show on NBC, is reportedly receiving payoffs to talk about some or all of the products he mentions when he does a segment. In fact, according to The Washington Post, Greenberg has confirmed that he routinely gets $15,000 each of the companies he represents. Among his “clients” are Apple Computer, Creative Technology, Hewlett-Packard and Energizer Holdings. Can you imagine plugging the iPod on one show, and, on the next, a Creative Zen Micro?

    Talk about product placement!

    Now to be fair about it, Greenberg claims he has simply worked as a spokesperson for these companies, but has never taken payment to hawk their products on a show. This sounds like a distinction without a difference to me, but clearly Greenberg’s concept of ethics is very different from mine.

    In the wake of this revelation, it’s reported that NBC is tightening up its policies on the relationships between its contributors and manufacturers.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve run across Greenberg in my travels. A few years back, in fact, he earned Jeers from me in one of our early newsletters, after he pushed a Wintel product as a great back to school product on “Today,” but deliberately ignored the iMac in the same context. Macs did get some play on the show in question, though, when Greenberg brought out the famous “Cube,” and proclaimed “that this was the first time the computer was shown outside the headquarters of Apple Computer.” Of course, this was weeks after I had reviewed the product for CNET.

    I don’t know whether he took a spiff for that appearance, but he did learn about my comments, sending me a letter bearing the subject “Jeer Yourself,” in which he took me to task for a minor technical error when I referred to one of his former affiliations.

    Now in the scheme of things, I haven’t paid much attention to Greenberg since then. Now maybe he has been, as he claims, above board in informing NBC of his affiliations. But it also raises the larger issue of whether so-called reporters should be working for the very companies they cover. Obviously, they shouldn’t, and conflicts of interest of this sort would or should earn a “You’re Fired” response from any respectable media outlet. The “Today” show, however, straddles the fine line between news and entertainment, and I suppose its producers can allow people like Greenberg to get away with this sort of thing by putting them into the latter category.

    Don’t get me wrong, though. I have nothing against the actual practice of product placement in the entertainment industry. You see Macs and tons of other products on both TV shows and movies. That’s the way it is, and the financial niceties of such deals don’t really interest me. It’s just nice to know that the good guys and gals, as it were, generally use Macs and the bad people use Wintel boxes. Nothing wrong with that.

    All this news, however, raises the larger issue of the relationship between the advertising and editorial departments on a media outlet. When I wrote for Macworld some years back, and this was before the merger with MacUser and the subsequent downsizing, the line of demarcation was made very clear. You had to maintain your independence and objectivity if you wanted to continue to write for that magazine, and other consumer publications have similar policies. For smaller publications, of course, where the proprietors must occupy both the editorial and ad sales positions, it becomes an lot harder to keep your priorities in order.

    Here at The Mac Night Owl, we are happy to take the ads, since this isn’t a charity. But at the same time, I try to put up a mental barrier between the two tasks, or just let my wife, who performs the marketing chores, handle most of the tasks of booking and placement. For the same reason, she doesn’t attempt to write editorial copy.

    In addition, I do not own stock in any technology company that I plan to cover, though I have to say that I’d have a much larger bank account if I bought Apple stock when the price was down in the low teens. But would you want to read these commentaries if you knew I derived benefit from Apple as a stockholder or a paid consultant? The answer is obvious, but it’s too bad others don’t feel the same way.

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