On the Media: Onetime TV consumer watchdogs now ply their trade elsewhere

David Horowitz was so big in the 1970s and '80s that he appeared regularly on the "Today" show and "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Carson satirized the super-earnest consumer watchdog as "David Howitzer, Consumer Supporter."

There may not be another individual in America, other than Ralph Nader, who was so closely identified with reporting about consumer affairs.

I got to wondering what had become of Horowitz and a handful of other local TV reporters who focused on the rights of the customers after writing recently about the disturbing trend of pay-to-play news. That's where programs dubbed as the "news" fob off paid promotional segments, touting products and services, like legitimate consumer reporting. We're talking about ads that aren't identified as ads.

The putative radio and TV watchdogs of yesteryear, meanwhile, have been pushed to the margins. They work for commercial interests or operate in obscure niches, fighting to build even modest audiences. Welcome to the Great Beyond of broadcast consumer reporting in L.A., 2010.

Horowitz, for one, lost his regular gig on Los Angeles TV in the mid-1990s and has continued to style himself as an advocate for the little guy with his "Fight Back!" appearances and website.

In his broadcast heyday, he was a beetle-browed inquisitor who styled himself as an impartial referee, bearing down on purported cheats and shysters, and exacting justice, not infrequently with a melodramatic delivery.

In the years after he left TV, the consumer gadfly has augmented his reporting by touting causes for pay. In 1998, Horowitz got $106,000 to speak out against a state ballot measure to slash electricity rates. A couple years later, he got an unknown sum to fight an L.A. City Council proposal to force cable TV companies to open their high-speed Internet lines to competitors.

Horowitz has insisted he only spoke out for causes he believed in and that the pay was incidental. He still takes consumer complaints, though mostly now via his website, which he runs out of an office in Beverly Hills. Yes, it's called FightBack.com, a name taken from his old TV show.

The most startling difference besides his lower profile is that Horowitz now charges customers for his services. Working with a handful of aides, he gets $50 for an over-the-phone consultation and $250 for a longer investigation.

Horowitz's voice rasped; a symptom, he said, of how much phone work he does in his job, which has really turned him into more of a private investigator than a journalist.

He says he feels justified in charging people because his FightBack team gets results. "We get like maybe 92% of their problems taken care of," including on significant issues, like saving homes from foreclosure.

"We have very few people who haven't been satisfied," he added. "When I say very few, I mean two or three or four. And if they are unhappy, we give them back their money."

Horowitz, 72, has another gig writing consumer features for Costco Connection, the monthly magazine that goes to millions of members of the discount big box store. I wondered if a consumer reporter could remain objective working for one of the country's largest retailers.

Horowitz assured me that he pursued the stories to make sure customers got satisfaction. He doubted there would ever be serious problems.

"They are a big store and they don't want people to ever feel like they are doing something that is not right," he explained. "The stores are just absolutely terrific."

Horowitz said he had a lot of people interested in getting him back on the small screen. He said his next chance on TV should be just around the corner.

Horowitz isn't the only longtime TV consumer reporter taking a different path.

Alan Mendelson, the onetime business and personal finance reporter for KCAL, spent years telling viewers he could help them find "best buys." But he lost his job in 2006 and has since made his living producing infomercials (many for lawyers) and a weekend "Best Buys" show that airs on KCOP Channel 13. The website for the program promises an expert with a "black belt in shopping" but the bottom line is that Mendelson features only companies that paid to be on the air.

Mendelson, 58, told me he took a certain pride in being a survivor and striking out as an independent operator, after years on local TV. But he acknowledged he wouldn't have plotted his career this way.

"I didn't want to do this. I was very happy in the news business," he said. "I loved my job. I had a following. It broke my heart to leave. But I had to eat and I was too young to retire. I had to do something."

Mendelson sees himself as a pawn in a much larger chess match. Back in the early 1980s, so many TV professionals were doing business reporting that they formed the Economic News Broadcasters Assn.

Mendelson served as president in 1981, when the group had 237 members. But the organization died before the end of the decade, as stations laid off business and consumer reporters and other beat journalists in droves. "The concept of specialist reporters just died," he said.

But surely such a fate couldn't have also befallen the man once known in these parts as "The Troubleshooter." You may recall how Judd McIlvain of KTTV and KCBS would descend on malefactors, hidden-camera style, demanding repairs on junky cars, refunds for bad merchandise and the like.

The bombastic McIlvain also got downsized more than a decade ago. Today he fields consumer stories and gives answers via the Internet. His audio and video feeds can be found at something called Stickam.com and another site called adviceradio.com.

The Troubleshooter also writes for a magazine for the over-50 set and has turned to making advertisements. He has pitched for, among other things, cars and home loans, the latter for a website called iWillfundyou.com.

McIlvain feels he did good work in his years on local TV. But he felt the noose of commercial interests intruding even when he had a job in what was supposed to be straight news.

On one of his last big TV stories, he spent weeks showing how local supermarkets faked the "must use" date on packages of chicken and returning the poultry to the shelves, even when it went bad. Just when the "stinky chicken story" was set to air, he recalled, station management pulled the plug.

"I think I know why, but I try not to assume things," McIlvain said. "But I do know some supermarkets were really upset I was checking around in their stores." They advertised with the station, he said.

That explains the title of the book he's putting together: "The Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Put on TV."

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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