It’s good to have friends in the press.
Even better when you work on a TV drama on a major television network that can leverage its relationship with its media partners to promote your extracurriculars.
Ask Fred Thompson, former Tennessee senator and star of the NBC series Law and Order, who, according to a bevy of sources and numerous articles, is contemplating a run for president in 2008.
In her April 9 article titled “Meet the Law and Order Candidate,” Newsweek Periscope columnist Holly Bailey discusses the prospect of a Thompson run for the presidency. She also cites a Gallup poll showing Fred Thompson running a close third—behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain—even though he had not (and still has not) formally declared his intentions to run.
Sounds like news, right?
Indeed, the wheels of the Thompson 2008 train were already turning. Senator Zach Wamp had forged a “Draft Thompson” committee. Thompson and his wife had sold their house in Tennessee and moved to D.C. Was this, mused Bailey, merely so that Thompson could be closer to New York City, where Law and Order is filmed? Or was it tacit evidence of grander plans?
To heighten the drama, Bailey used two anonymous friends to introduce secret motivations and potential hurdles of a Thompson campaign. One anonymous source asked whether Law and Order reruns would violate campaign equal airtime rules, otherwise known as the Equal Opportunity Provision of the Communications Act, which stipulates that television and radio stations must give candidates equal access to airtime.
The other anonymous source stoked the flames of speculation: “Friends,” wrote Bailey, “say he’s increasingly tempted to enter the 2008 Republican primaries fueled in part by new polls that show he’s got a serious shot at the White House.” But why go to all the trouble when you’ve already got him described–in the same article, no less–lunching with friend and Tennessee senator Bill Frist and Tennessee congressman Zach “Draft Thompson” Wamp (a friend who daringly went on record) quoted as saying “I really believe he’s in”?
Mystique and marketing
Discussing equal airtime rules before a formally declared run seems equivalent to discussing divorce on the first date—morbidly presumptuous, that is, unless you’re the television network faced with pulling all of its Law and Order reruns in the event of a Thompson run. For ratings-starved NBC it’s deadly serious business.
And there might also be big payoffs if this bit of inside baseball could be sold as “real” news. “Maybe all [White House] contenders can get Law and Order cameos,” the National Journal sarcastically suggested. But it doesn’t take much of a leap in our TV-dominated reality to envision that happening. It would certainly be a great television coup if NBC programmers could convince viewers to tune in to hear district attorney Arthur Branch (Thompson’s Law and Order character) channel the politics of presidential candidate Fred Thompson. (That appears unlikely now. Thompson announced at the end of May his plan to give up his role on the show.)
It’s also unlikely that we’ll ever get the full scoop on Newsweek’s editorial decision to use these anonymous sources. (Phone calls to editor-in-chief Richard Smith, Holly Bailey and Newsweek publicist Jan Angiella for comment on the magazine’s anonymous source policy went unanswered.) But we can evaluate them based on Newsweek’s own anonymous source policy, drafted by Richard Smith in the wake of Michael Isikoff’s Koran flushing debacle of 2005. By doing so we see they don’t measure up. The policy, which is grafted onto a mea culpa by Smith, states, “the burden of proof should fall with the reporters and their editors to show why a promise of anonymity serves the reader.”
“[B]uzz around Fred Thompson doesn’t hurt NBC’s ratings . . .”
It’s not at all clear how disembodied speculation about the political ambitions of a marginally famous actor serves Newsweek’s readership. It is clear, however, that it serves the ends of the NBC-Newsweek media conglomerate.
Fred Thompson, for now, is an NBC actor—not a presidential candidate. For the last 7 years, Newsweek has posted its content to the MSNBC site. NBC peacocks and Microsoft butterflies flit along the masthead and headers of Newsweek’s print and online editions. Newsweek’s online content is clearly entwined with that of its “strategic partner,” NBC. “The buzz around Fred Thompson doesn’t hurt NBC’s ratings at all when it comes to Law and Order,” former NPR ombudsman and executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists Jeffrey Dvorkin told me by phone. “[Whether] all of the talk about a potential Thompson Campaign is having an impact on audience figures for Law and Order is probably measurable. Whether it’s significant or not is something else.”
The buzz seems to be intensifying. Eager to capitalize on the interest around its fit-for-real-life-politics actor candidate, NBC it appears will have exclusive rights to the big announcement if and when it comes. Earlier this week Thompson was a guest on NBC’s Jay Leno Show. The former senator pushed honest conversation to the brink of coquettishness when he refused to say whether he planned to run in 2008. He did, however, serve up this slice of down-home political pie when asked “Do you want to be president?” “I’ve never craved the job of president,” Thompson drawled. “But I want to do some things that only a president can do, so the answer is yes.”
Octopuses mating in the deep
While Thompson’s real intentions remain obscure, the fog is beginning to lift from the expanding borders of media conglomerates. It’s no secret, for example, that the National Broadcasting Company is owned by General Electric. Nor is it hidden from view that Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post Company, bastion of independent-minded investigative journalism, has itself become a media behemoth. But how can we visualize less formalized, “strategic” relationships between the behemoths themselves—in this case, between Newsweek and MSNBC?
Imagine giant octopuses mating in the deep. In 2000, just before formation of the Newsweek-MSNBC partnership, Columbia Journalism Review editor Mike Hoyt cites a case in which Lou Dobbs, shortly after moving to NBC from CNN (before returning again to CNN in 2001), “was to be interviewed as an occasional guest on NBC News programs and on programs of other media outlets,” according to an NBC press release. In other words, why display your product in only one window when you’ve got 100 shopfronts? Hoyt was rightly skeptical of the euphemistic language. “Still, I have a word-association problem here,” he wrote. “When I hear the word ‘alliances’ I think ‘entangling.’”
If you go trying to untwist the tentacles—by, say, asking pesky questions about whether MSNBC influences Newsweek’s editorial decisions, and vice versa—you will find they do not unwind easily. I called Gina Stikes, a spokesperson at MSNBC, to find out more about the MSNBC-Newsweek connection. “I’m going to pass along your inquiry to one of our people in Redmond,” she said. That’s Redmond, Washington, the woody HQ of Microsoft, Inc. (But that’s an investigation for another story.) An hour or two later I received a cryptic reply from an unnamed MSNBC representative. “I do not have visibility into a relationship between NBC and Newsweek, if a formal one exists,” wrote my mystery contact. “Regarding MSNBC.com’s relationship with Newsweek, we do not comment publicly on the financial terms.”
No visibility. No comment. The implication is that since my mystery rep “sees” nothing, I should stop asking questions. (Further emails and calls elicited no replies.) Forget the joint content, forget the bold cross-platform advertising, forget the NBC peacocks and Microsoft butterflies soaring and strutting on Newsweek’s masthead.
Nothing to see here.
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Things get even weirder when you start noticing other connections hidden in plain sight. For example, on the masthead of Newsweek’s May 7 print edition is a logo for Microsoft Mobile. (A conspicuous mark, indeed, for two corporations that may or may not have “a formal relationship.”)
The following week, the Microsoft Mobile logo disappeared from the Newsweek masthead and on the page opposite of the masthead appeared a full-page advertisement for a Microsoft Mobile-ready handheld device. It must be said that nowhere is it declared–and it needs to be–that Newsweek and Microsoft are business partners. Could the NBC-Microsoft-Washington Post conglomerate be playing an elaborate, yet dangerous, game of three card monty with their credibility to promote a product aimed at worldwide distribution of their content?
“Fences make good neighbors . . . ”
We have entered a truly weird era of editorial entangling. Forget the old days, when defenders of the trade regarded media independence as if it were a Constitutional amendment. Times have changed, even media ethicists concede, and future revenue streams are uncertain. Transition is the new buzzword. “Journalists are worried about their jobs and we’ve got to explore new partnerships,” Marty Steffens, chair of the University of Missouri’s Business and Financial Reporting program, told me. “Still, fences make good neighbors and we’ve also got to be vigilant about enforcing the boundary between advertising and content.”
But advertisers are keen on seeking out and exploiting gaps in the fence. Once sacrosanct front-pages have become prime ad space. A new ad concept called “adscaping,” in which graphics bully news text upon the page, shows who holds the upper hand in the ad-news relationship. Mini van trunks flick away editorial copy; baseballs whiz through paragraphs; razors run down the page and shave away words like stubble. As if this were not enough, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently entered into a deal with Citizen’s Bank. Citizen’s will sponsor a business column with content written by Inquirer reporters. The kicker is that it will be flanked by a Citizen’s Bank logo and surrounded by a “Citizen’s Bank green” textbox.
But NBC and Newsweek’s marketing of Fred Thompson is more troubling than any of this. It lacks clear corporate logos or text boxes in revealing colors. It lacks disclosures of conflicts-of-interest. It has the patina of reliable journalism.
It also comes as a series
In a May 7 follow up story to the April 9 piece we get Bailey of Newsweek’s latest installment in the Thompson presidential quest series. In the accompanying photograph, Thompson holds a canned beverage and hovers stern faced over Arizona senator John McCain. (More street cred for the Law and Order candidate!)
A little farther into the story another anonymous source crops up. This time he’s identified as “a mutual friend of the two senators,” commenting on Fred Thompson’s recent lobbying efforts for John McCain. And again we’re sliding into the chasms of doubt, wondering who’s doing the talking, whether any of it’s to be believed—and if we might find more clarity about the state of affairs in our flagging democracy on reruns of The Daily Show or The Simpsons.
Part three, “The Sign of the Red Truck,” published on May 28, urges Thompson hangers-on to look for a signature red pickup truck parked in his driveway. Though the “politickin’ car” is little more than a hackneyed southern political stunt, Thompson’s rusty F-150 became a campaign symbol during his Senate campaigns in 1994 and 1998. From the bed of the truck, tailgate dropped, he’d deliver speeches on the primacy of state’s rights and tax reform.
We don’t know how much control Holly Bailey has over what she’s reporting on. But how she’s writing about Fred Thompson speaks volumes. Her failure to disclose clear and well-documented conflicts-of-interest suggests a special relationship between the Thompson camp and the Washington Post-NBC conglomerate. For example, she makes no mention of the fact that between 1975 and 1992 Thompson worked as a Washington lobbyist. In his time on K Street he represented many large firms including the Tennessee Savings and Loan League, Westinghouse, designer of flat screen televisions and nuclear plants, and, yes, General Electric, owner of NBC.
By the time we get to round four the act has grown stale. Bailey’s “Thompson and the ‘Laziness’ Issue,” published on June 11 uses an anonymous source identified as an advisor for a rival candidate. He offers what seems a straw man sketch of Thompson. “I doubt he has the fire in the belly to compete,” says the mystery source. Bailey then mentions Thompson’s assembly of a team of high profile of campaign advisors, but concedes there might be something to that “laziness” charge. She reports that Thompson “will spend less time on the road” and plans to utilize “new forms of communication with voters.”
Opportunistically lazy, it seems.
In other words, why bother firing up the red pickup when you’ve got an entire television and print media empire waiting to promote your campaign?
The databases used in the search were Lexis Nexis and NewsBank. Only articles about single candidates were counted. Articles about about election 2008 in general, which did not focus on one candidate specifically, were disregarded. Articles that were not about the individual’s presidential campaign were also disregarded. The search only included articles from the past six months.
Over the past six months, Newsweek has provided virtually no coverage of the majority of the ten Republican primary candidates. The newsmagazine published no exclusives about seven of the ten candidates. Three articles were devoted to each of the top three Republican contenders—John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney.
Instead of covering those who have actually declared themselves as candidates, Newsweek has devoted a disproportionate amount of coverage to Fred Thompson, the former senator who has not announced a candidacy. While nine articles were published in total about the ten candidates combined, eight articles were published on Fred Thompson alone. The magazine’s unbalanced coverage detracts from the campaigns of those who are actually in the race, pushes lesser-known candidates even further into the background, and creates hype around Thompson that will obviously give him early
Other sources, it turns out, are not as Thompson-heavy as Newsweek is. While the New York Times does feature far more articles on Rudolph Giuliani than on any other candidate (Giuliani is the focus of 63 articles, compared to Romney’s 29 and McCain’s 23) at least Giuliani is actually in the race. Thompson is featured in eleven New York Times articles, far fewer than the top three contenders. The data for the Los Angeles Times are similar: Thompson stands at 11 articles, compared to the 66 articles written about the top three candidates. However, both of these papers provide little coverage of the seven less-popular candidates.
Even the ultra-conservative Washington Times was not, proportionally speaking, as Thompson-heavy. Thompson received a good deal of coverage, comparable to other frontrunners except McCain.