Tuning In to Some Lessons in Letting the Viewer Beware

The hardest thing for a news organization to do is to investigate itself or one of its big advertisers. A segment on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" Wednesday is boldly about both.

While delivering a very strong piece on the daggers that some consumer reporters face from their own bosses in both TV and newspapers, correspondent Chris Wallace and producer Stu Harris take whacks at some of their ABC brethren in local news. And also at KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles, the San Jose Mercury News and WCCO-TV, the once-celebrated CBS affiliate in Minneapolis accused of firing consumer reporter Silvia Gambardella for her tough reporting that angered car dealers.

Gambardella is now in Los Angeles, working at both cable's E! Entertainment Television and KCAL-TV Channel 9 news, and has written a screenplay about her experience at WCCO. Her story and others cited here are a warning about the fiscal bottom line that can transcend news judgment and ethics when the interests of the public clash with those of powerful advertisers.

"I pushed very hard for this because it meant a lot to me personally," Wallace said by phone from ABC News in Washington. "I see it as a consumer report. What do we consume more than news? So if the kind of news coverage you're getting from your local station and newspaper is being slanted to curry favor with big advertisers, that is a consumer story. We [the media] are an enormously influential force in society. To always ignore us and say we're off-limits is wrong."

Not that big shots at ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago or WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate station in Washington, will be toasting the high-minded tenacity of Wallace, Harris or "PrimeTime Live" this week. The ethics of both of these big stations are questioned in the segment.

As are those--surprise!--of CBS-owned KCBS, where David Horowitz, perhaps the nation's best-known consumer reporter, tells "PrimeTime" he came under pressure from management concerning two auto-related stories.

On the program, Wallace says he was told by Horowitz that after the first story--about a couple's car that caught fire when the brakes were applied--Horowitz was directed by a station executive to "check with management first" before doing future pieces on auto dealers. Horowitz says on the program that the KCBS official added that "we can't afford to lose ad dollars."

The other story--about a Nissan commercial that Horowitz believed might encourage reckless driving--elicited a sharp response from a second station executive, whom Horowitz says on the program told him: "You've done enough of these Nissan stories. Leave Nissan alone. They're one of our sponsors."

Unfortunately, neither of the executives is identified on the program.

As "PrimeTime" notes, KCBS did not renew Horowitz's contract last spring. Wallace says station officials deny Horowitz's charges about interference and say he was released for "budget reasons."

As for ABC's very own WLS, Wallace says on the program that twice in two years it did not broadcast reports about car defects by the syndicated series "Inside Edition" when they aired nationally during the same week the station was sponsoring Chicago's auto show.

"PrimeTime" takes a different, lengthier approach concerning the ABC affiliate WJLA, with Wallace grilling general manager Terry Connelly about the "more than 20 stories" the station did run noting the first anniversary of the Clinton administration's closing of two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House for security reasons. Wallace says some of those stories "seemed to have a point of view," and that only one mentioned that the station's owner also owns a bank whose main branch is on that stretch of Pennsylvania and "has been badly hurt by the closure."

A WJLA staff member tells Wallace anonymously, "We were told that there was corporate interest in extensive coverage of the subject," a charge denied by station boss Connelly.

Although not quite a landmark, the "PrimeTime" segment is surely a rarity, for devouring one's own is about as high on a network's list of priorities as praising the competition. And according to one ABC source, who requested anonymity, there already are fears at the network that WJLA may punish ABC for Wednesday's "PrimeTime" by denying a clearance to "Politically Incorrect," the Bill Maher series that ABC is planning for the time slot after "Nightline" in January, and by making other schedule changes that may hurt the network in Washington.

Reached in his Washington office, Wallace said Friday that it was Harris' idea to do a story about "the significant trend of big news operations caving in to big advertisers. There was obviously going to be a sensitivity to the story, and we knew we'd have to get approval on the fifth floor [the offices of top ABC News executives in New York]," he said.

"So we went to New York and gave a talk about it to some of the top people. They recognized that there was a story in it, that it affected an [ABC owned-and-operated station] and a top affiliate, that we'd step on some toes, and they'd be sensitive. I don't think it was [his bosses'] favorite investigation, but the decision was to go ahead and do it."

At no time, said Wallace, were he, Harris or "PrimeTime" pressured by superiors to soften the report, although after it was completed, "the reviewing process was somewhat more painstaking and painful than usual. There were a few more testy memos going back and forth from some news executives."

Why didn't "PrimeTime" extend its harsh white light to network news operations instead of picking mainly on local news? Because, Wallace replied, network news programs do tough consumer reporting much more frequently than do local stations. Although the results are sometimes high-profile debacles, as when "Dateline NBC" once was caught cheating in a probe of General Motors trucks, and when CBS and ABC in recent years appeared to buckle under pressure from major tobacco companies.

Not that any of this taints "PrimeTime" on Wednesday. "In the end I have to give them credit," said Wallace about ABC, "because they're putting it on the air."

* "PrimeTime Live" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7).

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