Accuracy in Media

Corey Greenberg, the technology editor of NBC’s Today show, is known as one of the top consumer reporters.  Now comes word that he was being paid by the manufacturers to “talk up” their products on news shows, according to revelations first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Last July Greenberg described the iPod as “a great portable musical player… the coolest-looking one.” Co-host Matt Lauer quipped to Greenberg: “Let’s cut the Apple commercial here right now, ok?”

Lauer was right: the segment would’ve been better described as a commercial since editor Corey Greenberg was charging manufacturers like Apple, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Seiko Epson, Creative Technology and Energizer Holdings up to $15,000 apiece to promote their products. The Wall St. Journal disclosed what NBC did not: that Greenberg was under contract to those companies. Apparently the NBC paycheck wasn’t enough for Mr. Greenberg. He told media the manufacturers hired him “a spokesperson who could talk credibly and understandably about consumer products,” but said he’d no longer accept payment for appearances on local shows. What about the Today show?

While Greenberg said NBC was aware of his “outside work” and had been “aboveboard” with the network, NBC officials say they were unaware of the contracts and have tightened their policies. It’s not clear what NBC means by tightening its policy however, since the Post reported that “NBC has not severed its relationship with Greenberg and other experts who it says failed to reveal their corporate ties.”

One NBC official told the Post that, “This is a way of doing business for these people?It’s hard to find a contributor who doesn’t have a connection to one of these things.'” The official declined to be identified by the Post because the network wouldn’t let executives talk to the media. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the morning shows should be more vigilant. “This is precisely the kind of thing that erodes public trust in the media.”

The Kansas City Star characterized the rise of the use of paid TV consumer experts as the latest way marketers have tried to disguise their promotions as real news. The newspaper lumped the practice in with the publishing of advertorials in magazines and the broadcasting of video news releases as broadcast news.

Still, NBC doesn’t seem to think this is a big issue. Consider that the Post reported that David McCormick, executive producer for broadcast standards at NBC, said that an expert might be allowed to talk about a product on the Today show even if he had a financial conflict. “Some products that they might talk about might be quite topical,” McCormick said, “and to avoid them would be peculiar.” What about some disclosure? Also, Greenberg was an editor for NBC, not an “outside” source.

It’s the avoidance of the ethical issues here that is truly peculiar. Also, what is NBC saying when its reporters broadcast negative stories about Armstrong Williams getting paid by the federal government while its own editor was under contract with corporations? In 2003 the Washington Post reported on two NBC affiliates who were selling air time on its news programs. Perhaps NBC believes corporate payola is okay, while government payola is a scandal.

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