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The above screenshot shows an e-mail promotion for the "Economic Crisis Summit," a web program that hosted an interview with O'Reilly. Later they used his image and likeness to promote a financial investment newsletter. (Credit: Media Matters)

An e-mail from conservative news agency Newsmax converted an interview with Bill O’Reilly into an endorsement for an investment program — without his knowledge.

Newsmax‘s e-mail promoted a webcast called “Economic Crisis Summit,” which featured both the O’Reilly interview and a promotion for a financial investment newsletter.  (A copy of the e-mail, which lists O’Reilly as the “premier guest,” is available here on Media Matters’ website.  MediaMatters also has noted that Newsmax’s previous summits have also been infomercials.)

The fine line between advertising and editorial has been shaded in recent years, and this is the latest incident  — with O’Reilly’s status, name, likeness and interview turned into a vehicle for financial profit.

It a common problem for well-known TV personalities and reporters to have their interviews and likenesses misused for monetary gain. Sometimes they claim to be duped into shady deals. See one example: StinkyJournalism’s 2009 report on Greg Gumbel’s infomercial here. A day after StinkyJournalism’s exclusive report that Gumbel was hosting infomercials that deceptively appeared  like news stories in clear violation of FTC rules, he filed a lawsuit against the program’s producer.

An interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was used to seemingly endorse a financial investment newsletter.

CBS Money Watch’s Kathy Kristof brought attention to O’Reilly’s presence in the newsletter promotions with her Aug 17 column.  Kristof wrote that she was “intrigued” when she saw O’Reilly’s name attached to the newsletter, which she labeled a “scam or misrepresentation.”  In an Aug 27 column, Kristof amended her earlier “scam” label to clarify that she thinks the way consumers end up subscribing to the newsletter is “misleading.”  She fully explains her thoughts on the newsletter and investment program here.

Fox News told The New York Times’ reporter Brian Stelter that O’Reilly’s interview was misused. “They took an interview that Bill did and used it for other purposes,” Stelter reported that a Fox News executive vice president Bill Shine said.

According to Stelter, Shine further said that O’Reilly’s speaking agent Don Walker set up the interview.  Walker likewise told the Times via e-mail that “we did not know Mr. O’Reilly’s interview would be purportedly used to promote anything.”

“As a matter of fact, we were very specific from the outset of our conversation with Newsmax that we would not allow that, either explicitly or implied,” Walker is reported as writing.

All parties involved seemingly understood that there would be a financial newsletter presented in the program. The Times reported that Walker wrote in an e-mail that he and O’Reilly knew “Newsmax would mention a financial newsletter service during the program, which was explicitly separate from Bill’s appearance.” Newsmax is reported to have told The Times the same.  But, Newsmax’s chief executive Christopher Ruddy “suggested that Fox had made a rush to judgment,” The Times reported.

According to the Times, O’Reilly isn’t making money off the newsletter, but “it is unclear how much money” he was paid for his appearance.

The Program

CBS Money Watch’s Kathy Kristof seems to have broken the story Aug 17 calling out the newsletter for being misleading and O’Reilly’s presence in it. Kristof described the program, which is now no longer available online, as a “faux news show.”  Media Matters furthered called the program “little more than an infomercial.”

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Kristof wrote that the program opened with an anchorman, seated behind a desk, introducing O’Reilly.

 “Then he asks: ‘How can you invest in this treacherous environment?’ O’Reilly suggests buying depressed stocks that pay dividends, which plays right into the anchor’s hand,” Kristof recounts.

O’Reilly is introduced as offering a perspective and not an endorsement..

“First of all, I want to mention to our viewers that you are really here to give your unvarnished views about our economic situation and how it’s going to impact Americans. You’re not here to endorse anyone else’s point of view or to endorse a product or financial service. You’re joining us just to give us your take.” MediaMatters recalled the program’s host John Daly said.

Bill Spetrino, who runs the newsletter, follows O’Reilly’s interview.  Spetrino “purports to agree with O’Reilly and offers a newsletter called ‘The Dividend Machine,'” according to Kristof.

“But he adds that he has ‘something even better.’ Spetrino maintains that he’s written a report about a ‘forgotten, seven-state Constitutional Clause’ that guarantees generous tax-free ‘IRS payouts’ of $1,196 or more. And, he’s agreed to provide this report ‘free’ to viewers of the show produced by Newsmax.”

The newsletter pitch is available on Spetrino’s website here.

As Kristof wrote, the program’s purpose seemed to be to push Spetrino’s newsletter, which some consumers ended up subscribing to unintentionally.  Consumers who signed up for Spetrino’s “free reports” had to enter in $1 on a credit card and were automatically subscribed to Spetrino’s $99 newsletter.  And the terms and conditions for the “free reports” indicate you have to fully pay for subscriptions before getting to use his service.

More than 50 complaints about Newsmax have been filed in the past 36 months with South Florida’s Better Business Bureau, its communications vice president Michael Galvin said, Kristof reported.  The most recent complaints have largely regarded “unauthorized charges on credit cards.”

“It appears that they’ve been doing business for a while and haven’t had a lot of trouble until recently, when they appear to be trying to sell a newsletter,” Galvin said.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises that journalists distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

StinkyJournalism has written to O’Reilly and Newsmax for more information and will update with any response.

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Fox News says Bill O’Reilly didn’t know he’d be used in investment scheme newsletter

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