Caught in a blind spot

We live in a media universe where "American Idol" judges slurp from giant tumblers of Coca-Cola, "The Biggest Loser" contestants gush about their Subway sandwich feasts and local television news operations sell off "sponsorships" to the highest bidder.

Weather, traffic, sports, ski reports and more now come along with broadcast or Web-based advertising. "Lakers coverage on KCBS and KCAL -- sponsored by Honda."

The thicket of corporate billboards dotting the airwaves can get a little mind-numbing. But most of the time it's easy to sniff out what, and when, we are being sold.

But never put it past nimble sponsors and some media pals to find new ways to slide a little salesmanship your way. How about planting what looks suspiciously like a company promo in the middle of the evening news and presenting it as an "exclusive" report?

That's the ethically suspect maneuver that KTLA-TV Channel 5 pulled last week -- delivering viewers three straight nights of shameless puffery about the "dramatic turnaround" at Ford Motor Co. under the title "The View From the Driver's Seat."

An on-screen disclaimer at the end of the 10 o'clock newscast confirmed what a discerning viewer might have suspected -- that Ford got this glowing treatment because it paid for it. The note said the automaker paid a "sponsorship fee" to KTLA "in connection" with the three-part news series.

I called KTLA General Manager Don Corsini earlier this week to ask if his station hadn't wiped away the once-sacrosanct barrier that divided advertising and news.

Corsini told me that despite the on-screen confirmation of pay-for-play, I had it all wrong. "Ford did not pay KTLA to air the news series," he said.

KTLA's top boss said the segments Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights were produced solely at the station's initiative. He said the disclaimer was related to an hour of time Ford purchased to air its self-produced comeback documentary, "The New American Road," which ran the night after the "news" series concluded.

All of this might seem a little bit confusing and a bit awkward, because KTLA, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. But a viewer had called me after seeing KTLA's Ford coverage last week questioning whether the news story wasn't just one big sales job.

Indeed, "The View From the Driver's Seat" looked every bit like breathless promotion. Anchor Micah Ohlman piloted what he dubbed the "exclusive three-part series." The segments depicted Ford as fighting back gamely against the economic downturn and industry challenges by producing a boffo line of cars and trucks.

KTLA interspersed riffs from Ford West Coast executive Hal Dewsnap with plenty of pretty pictures of the automakers' gleaming new fleet, video supplied by Ford, from the same documentary the station aired last Saturday.

Clearly Ford has made improvements and disdained the government aid other car builders took. The company not long ago announced a $2.7-billion profit for 2009.

But wouldn't a real news story offer some comparison to other car makers? How about describing how Ford got in a hole in the first place? A simple reading of the wire services would tell you Ford has a few other challenges -- not the least trying to operate under a whopping $34.3 billion in debt.

KTLA, though, didn't let any such context clutter up this shiny bauble.

Ohlman concluded the roughly 10-minute series Friday night by informing viewers who hadn't had their Ford-fill that KTLA would air the Ford documentary the very next night!

KTLA did broadcast an on-screen disclaimer immediately before the documentary ran Saturday, saying the program was sponsored by Ford. But the only disclaimer with the three news segments was aired at the end of each night's hourlong news program. On Friday night, viewers had to sit through 20 more minutes of news and sports to have any chance of seeing what really had Channel 5 so Ford-crazy. "Ford Motor Company paid a sponsorship fee to KTLA in connection with 'The View From the Driver's Seat' report," the note said, "and supplied video used in the report."

No newscast should be giving up prime time in the midst of its news for what amounts to advertising that pretends to be something else. At the least, the station should have told viewers clearly, at the outset of the each segment, about the pay deal, not in a way they almost surely missed.

In an e-mail, Corsini said the paid-content disclaimer had been imprecise. He said it really was meant to alert viewers that KTLA was being paid to air the upcoming Ford documentary. In hindsight, he said, the station only needed to acknowledge the car company supplied video.

"Given that Ford had purchased an hour of airtime Saturday night," Corsini explained, "that the three-part interview was lined up with Ford and aired during the same week as the special, and that Ford permitted us to use video from the special in our news series, we decided to air a disclaimer out of an abundance of caution."

If this pimpin' of Ford's rides and half-baked transparency represents caution, I'd hate to get a look at reckless abandon.

"We know that our success as a news organization depends on public confidence in the integrity of our editorial product," Corsini wrote me in the e-mail. "We would never do anything to damage that."

Yet while insisting the Ford segments were in no way tied to KTLA's business motivations, Corsini acknowledged that the station expressed interest to the car company in doing the "news" pieces when the two sides were talking about Ford buying air time for the documentary.

Talk about blowing a hole in the wall between editorial and advertising. It's dangerous when conversations about coverage and paid programming are intermingled.

Confused? You are not alone.

The uncritical Ford pieces looked even more suspect when matched against straight coverage of other automakers. On one of the nights it made Ford's engines purr, KTLA hit on Toyota's sticky-gas-pedal debacle.

It also told viewers about a Honda recall of cars that could overheat and even catch fire.

"This just shows you how far TV news has fallen. Somebody has got to maintain a good fight in this business," said Pete Noyes, the feisty producer, now retired, who helped run several L.A. news operations over the last half-century.

The changing advertising landscape surrounds all of us. Newspapers sell ad space on their front pages. Local radio outlets turn huge chunks of once-independent airtime over to paid "advertorial."

With audiences muting, TiVoing and fast-forwarding their way around most traditional TV ads, it's no surprise that companies will try new tactics to get their products in front of the public.

Some compromises that once seemed unthinkable now might be worth making -- if they bring in enough money to preserve an outlet's ability to produce real news coverage.

But when you don't tell the audience clearly and unequivocally what's going on -- that's not a compromise. It's a sellout.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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