Accuracy in Media

Jeff Zucker is outraged. The NBC Universal Television Group President made headlines when he lambasted competitor CBS News over the Bush National Guard document scandal. Zucker insisted that such a scandal could never have happened at NBC. 

On January 21, Broadcasting and Cable magazine carried Zucker’s comments which he made as speaker at the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles. Zucker said it was “shocking” to see “the degree to which responsibility was abdicated on the piece about the President of the United States, six weeks before the election.”

Zucker was surprised that CBS seemed to have none of the safeguards that NBC adopted after its own 1992 scandal involving NBC Dateline. The disastrous segment was about GM trucks which allegedly had a dangerous tendency to catch fire in side collisions. The newsmagazine failed to disclose that incendiary devices were place underneath the truck to cause the fiery crash test visuals.

Even though this is in NBC’s past, and even though Zucker was correct to condemn CBS’s “fake” journalism, there remain troubling signs at NBC.

In the January cover story “Tin Soldier” for the Columbia Journalism Review, Mariah Blake revealed how convicted criminal Jonathan Keith Idema fed questionable information on terrorism and allegedly phony al-Qaeda videotapes to both CBS and NBC.

While railing at CBS, NBC remains indifferent to “pay for play journalism” pursued by affiliates sporting the peacock logo. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post wrote two articles in 2003 detailing how NBC affiliates were engaging in this questionable conduct. The first article, (“Florida TV Station Cashes in on ‘Interview’ Guests,” October 16, 2003) explained that while most networks would consider pay-for-play journalism a fireable offense, “?[A]t WFLA-TV, in the nation’s 14th-largest market, producers on ‘Daytime’ are not shy about asking guests to pony up. They have turned the routine daily booking of guests into a commercial transaction.”

The Post, tipped off by the PR agent, had listened in on one such “sale” phone conversation.  What could the PR agent do to get his client on the air? “You pay us and we do what you want us to do,” explained an NBC staffer. And the cost for an interview on the morning show at the Tampa affiliate? The answer: “Twenty-five hundred bucks for four to six minutes.”

Then on November 3, 2003, Kurtz wrote of another NBC incident: “Local TV News: Now Part of Sales?” This one detailed the deals at WLBT-TV, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. Kurtz reported, “To be interviewed by one of its news anchors – an ‘exclusive two to two and a half minute segment’ – required only a ‘weekly investment’ of $500, according to a sales flier for the program. Or $2,000 for the month.”

Kurtz noted, “Charging for interviews, it turns out, may be more widespread than commonly thought.”

While NBC had no official comment for the Post, one NBC official suggested that the network had no control over the content of local programs on network affiliates. It’s hardly credible for NBC to say it has no control over what its peacock logo gets stamped on. That’s the NBC brand and the network should stand behind it.

In the wake of the CBS scandal, the NBC peacock may be strutting and preening. But NBC and its affiliates have themselves laid some rotten journalistic eggs.

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