Robin Thicke’s summer pop hit is called “Blurred Lines,” and journalism critics say that’s exactly what they see in a music video parody that uses dancing TV news starlets to take a shot at Bob Filner, the San Diego mayor accused by 14 women of sexual harassment.
The video by U-T TV -- the cable television affiliate of the newspaper once known as the Union-Tribune -- has created a modest storm for its attempt to make light of the scandal threatening to drive Filner from office.
“Vapid and embarrassing,” pronounced the managing editor of the Voice of San Diego news site, a U-T competitor.
“The only thing a news organization has is its credibility in reporting the news,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “This doesn’t help.”
The video features a hip-thrusting Filner character, made by superimposing the mayor’s head on another man’s body, pursuing three young women in skirts and high heels. The U-T news staffers gyrate and spin while rejecting the faux mayor’s advances. The words “RESIGN” and “CREEPER” flash on the screen.
The criticism of Filner by U-T TV has struck some as ironic, since the start-up television operation has been accused by some other journalists in San Diego of using its female hosts as props.
“The U-T lacks respect for the female anchors they employ by putting them into this video as a backdrop of eye ... candy, that do nothing more than trounce around in tight-fitting clothing looking like Barbies,” wrote viewer Gretchen Newsom on the U-T website.
Others defended the video. “I believe the conversation needs to be shifted away from what women are wearing altogether,” Diane Peabody wrote in response to Newsom, “because that in itself is part of the problem. Women should wear what they like, without any kind of judgment or harassment from all of us.”
U-T Editor Jeff Light said that the news organization “has many divisions doing many different things” and that the audience understands the difference between its hard news and the “video spoof.” He noted a range of stories covered by the U-T and added: “I don’t think you would be at all confused about what was news and what was entertainment.”
The U-T has drawn considerable criticism since its purchase two years ago by developer and hotelier Doug Manchester. The new owner has been accused of departing from journalistic standards by using his paper to promote his political friends and interests, particularly a new downtown stadium and arena.
The paper took some additional hits last year when it hosted an event teaching political candidates, mostly Republicans, how to get noticed by the press and pitch themselves to the paper’s editorial board. Executives at the conservative-leaning paper have insisted in past interviews that they are careful not to let their editorial opinions influence news coverage.
The U-T TV news operation represents a substantial investment for the company, which had lost money in recent years under the Copley family, its longtime owner. It reported spending $5 million to create the TV station in a section of the third-floor newsroom. In its own story about the initiative, the newspaper declared: “U-T San Diego transforms itself into an innovative multimedia company that has promise as a national model.”
The affiliate’s programming can be seen both online and on two cable outlets. Its morning program, “Front Page With Scott & Amber,” is described as a “live five-hour personality driven show with topical news, entertainment and captivating guests.”
Co-host Scott Kaplan lost an earlier job in sports talk radio after he described a woman television personality as a “beast” and a “sasquatch of a woman.” He pairs with Amber Mesker, who the U-T website describes as a “respected on-air talent.” A house ad in the U-T newspaper urges the audience to “add some sizzle to your morning,” along with a photo showing Mesker on the beach in a clingy mini-dress and high heels.
The morning show focuses largely on light fare while also reporting the news. In one segment, Mesker lay bare-shouldered under a towel for a massage while the fully-clothed Kaplan conducted interviews and then briefly joined in her rub-down. The segment promoted a massage chain.
This week’s U-T video is set to the music of Thicke’s sex-charged hit and features the two morning anchors and other station personalities dancing with the ersatz mayor. The Filner character mimes a headlock (which the real mayor is accused of administering to one alleged victim) and paws, if somewhat tentatively, two of the women in the video, who reject his advances.
The gist of the lyrics -- which include “You don’t need that grabber, that man is not a mayor” and “The nation’s laughing and we’d be happy, so very happy, if you’d resign” -- is that strong women have stood up to Filner and he should leave office.
Before and after the dance video, the two anchors have conducted more traditional news segments, interviewing an investigative reporter from the paper and experts on the law of sexual harassment, the treatment for sexual misconduct and the role public records might play in the Filner case.
Journalism professor Nelson said he understands why the U-T, like most newspapers struggling to find new sources of revenue, is trying something new with the televised news. But he said the outlet has to be careful about sending a mixed message.
“When Stephen Colbert gets up and dances it’s funny,” Nelson said. “When news people try to do it, then the next time they are reporting the straight news, I think the audience is thinking ‘What am I supposed to take seriously here?’ ”
In a short email exchange, anchor Mesker said the video should affect opinions of the U-T newspaper no more than coverage by KTLA-TV affects opinions of the Los Angeles Times. (Both KTLA and The Times are owned by Tribune Co.)
“The UT informs,” Mesker wrote, “U-T TV entertains.”