Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The [Brand Name Here] News

If there was ever any doubt that it's advertising's world and we just live in it, that doubt should have been erased with the announcement, earlier this month, that a radio station in Madison, Wisc., had sold the naming rights to its newsroom to advertisers. Starting jan. 1, the newsroom for WIBA radio will morph into the Amcore Bank News Center. For journalism, that apocalypse we always talk about being upon us may really, finally be here.

Or has already been here: The Associated Press reports that a Milwaukee station sold its naming rights to another bank, Pyramax, in 2004. Monica Baker, Pyramax's senior vice president of marketing, told The AP that it was just a matter of the bottom line. "This is a way for us to maintain our revenue levels and make the station successful," she said. "The concern about any possible conflict of interest is just ridiculous."

But there's much room for concern among journalists, and there should be with the public as well. The Pyramax and Amcore deals don't just smudge the line between news and advertising, they cross the line with blithe ruthlessness and a reflexive justification on grounds of fiscal responsibility. Such alliances are a problem for anyone hoping for news outlets separate from the corporations that those outlets must sometimes cover.

Company brands on news broadcasts aren't really new. David Klatell, vice dean at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, told teh AP that the practice was discontinued in the 1950's, after such broadcasts as the NBC evening news broadcast featured the orange and white Gulf Oil logo on the set.

The problem NBC brass must have figured out then, Klatell noted, is the same issue they'll be forced to wrestle with this time if the trend continues. "They couldn't fairly cover not only Gulf, they couldn't cover anything that was relevant to the oil industry or its competitors."

As more and more American companies engage in the reverse mitosis of mergers and acquisitions, bulking up by conusming their smaller rivals (witness the new AT&T, happily digesting what was once SBC), the inevitability of conflict of interest is obvious. Consider the range of divisions of just some of the country's leading communications companies: from theme parks to magazines, from aircraft engines to the 50-gallon water heater I plan to buy for my home.

With a range of interests like that, it's obviously hard enough to maintain some degree of editorial independence when stories even peripherally related to a parent company's bottom line cross the editor's desk. You could imagine, for example, the dilemma of reporting a story on faulty aircraft engines implicated in a series of deadly airline crashes when your network's parent company makes the engines in question.

That dilemma is that much more transparent when you've branded your news product with the name of your biggest advertiser. Those newsrooms in Madison and Milwaukee can only hope they don't have to deal with any banking scandals tied to anyone working for Amcore or Pyramax banks. But that's the easy call; how will they handle stories on the banking sector in general? Can they be counted on to report news about other banks as aggressively as they'll cover news related to Amcore or Pyramax?

And how do these news departments handle the issue of professional integrity, namely, the matter of not just avoiding conflict of interest but also avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest?

That's a matter that two newsrooms, for now, are grappling with. The deeper, bigger question is, what happens in the future. But with advertisers increasingly challenged to find a way to get into the public mind and stay there, with corporations increasingly challenged to hit their numbers, with news outlets increasingly challenged to inform the public and bludgeon their competition in the process, the Brought To You By News of the past may well be a worrisome development to come.

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