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Copyright © 1999, 2011 by David E. Ross

Granted, EgyptAir's tragic Flight 990 did originate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). So when the plane crashed into the Atlantic off New England after stopping at New York's JFK Airport, it was a major news story in Los Angeles. But then KNXT (CBS's Los Angeles TV station) began broadcasting live from LAX to cover the story. They had no interviews with LAX officials or with local airline representatives, not even a view of the Bradley International Terminal or the EgyptAir check-in counter. What was the point of being at LAX, other than trying to give fluff the appearance of substance? In the midst of tragedy, KNXT resorted to silliness because they had nothing really new to report beyond what they had already reported.

Recently, the long-respected Los Angeles Times published a special "news" insert in the newspaper about the newly opened Staples Center arena. Then last week, the publisher of the Times admitted sharing the advertising revenues from that insert with Staples. Apparently, this promotion of Staples Center — a free advertisement disguised as news — was in exchange for Staples giving the Times special advertising privileges in the arena. For a long time, TV news programs have promoted their own network's shows as news. It is generally easy to distinguish stealth advertisements on TV when such "news" fails to be mentioned on any other TV station. But the Times does not have that kind of competition. We must then find other ways to guard against being hoodwinked when our newspaper publishes advertisements that are not labeled as such.

Inflating fluff to simulate substance and creating news out of advertisements are destroying the credibility of news media as a watchdog over public affairs. Both KNXT and the Los Angeles Times need to re-examine the difference between their product — news — and infomercials.

My son is a big hockey fan and is even a part-owner of a pair of season tickets for the Kings, the Los Angeles hockey team that just moved into Staples Center. He was at the first Kings home game in their new arena. My son told me that, while Staples Center is nice, it really failed to meet his expectations — expectations that were created by the "news" in the Times. Thus, a lapse in journalistic ethics was counter-productive, resulting in disappointment among those it was supposed to awe.

I am not alone in my concern for the credibility of the Los Angeles Times. Former Times publisher Otis Chandler (whose family's trust still owns controlling interest in the parent Times-Mirror Corporation), very recently sent a five-page letter to the employees of the newspaper. The letter was read aloud to the staff and posted on the employee bulletin board.

The letter said, in part,

This is a personal message addressed today to the employees of the Los Angeles Times, particularly of the editorial department because they have been so abused and misused. … I consider what has happened to be the most serious single threat to the future survival and growth of this great newspaper during my more than 50 years of being associated with The Times. … [I] need to speak directly to the employees of The Times to assure them I admire what they are doing. I feel great support for their efforts under very difficult senior management circumstances as exemplified by … this unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of this Staples Center special section.
Chandler also decried the erosion of the separation between news and advertising departments, a separation that has long been considered a key principle of jounalistic ethics.

Chandler noted that "One cannot successfully run a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times with executives in the top two positions, both of whom have no newspaper experience at any level. Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business." Neither Mark H. Willes, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror, nor Kathryn M. Downing, publisher and chief executive officer of the Times, have any prior newspaper experience.

1 November 1999
Updated 4 November 1999

More than eleven years later, the Times is now owned by the bankrupt Chicago Tribune. The separation between news and advertising departments seems to have disappeared in local TV broadcast news, where journalistic ethics no longer exist.

letterhead with my name, E-mail address, city and state

20 February 2011

Scott Diener
CBS Studio City Broadcast Center
4200 Radford Ave.
Studio City, CA 91604

Mr. Diener:

Tonight, on the 6:00pm local Channel 2 news, there was an item — seemingly never ending — about "The Great Race". This was presented as news but was really little more than an advertisement for a show that would appear later in the broadcast schedule.

Broadcasting such advertisements as news will only impair the credibility of your TV station as a source of real news. In the future, any such item should begin with an announcement that it is an infomercial and not news. After all, how many competing TV stations would provide air time to such "news".


David E. Ross

20 February 2011

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