In February 2008, public-relations professional Gayle Lynn Falkenthal got a message from one her clients: A salesperson from KUSI had called to talk about getting the client on the air. The client, whom Falkenthal prefers not to name, was interested in raising its profile by getting some airtime as an expert. Falkenthal spoke to the salesperson, who basically told her it wouldn't be a problem—she could get her client on KUSI's morning show, Good Morning San Diego, at 8:40 a.m. every Thursday. Her client would be interviewed by an anchor on a topic to be mutually determined. The segment would get placement on the station's website.
“I was quoted a price of $32,500 for 13 weeks—one quarter—of programming, in which my client would have a regular weekly interview segment,” she told CityBeat.
Since morning shows are generally considered news, the sale of time became something of an ethical dilemma for Falkenthal and her client: Could they have confidence that viewers knew the time had been paid for? Falkenthal said the station would have announced that the segment had been sponsored by the business before the interview began, but she didn't feel comfortable with the arrangement, and she pulled out.
Mike McKinnon, general manager and part owner of KUSI, denies the charges entirely.
“We don't engage in those practices like some stations in town,” he told CityBeat. When confronted with Falkenthal's anecdote, he said, “I'm not involved in all the day-to-day decisions.”
Falkenthal is adamant that the exchange happened.
The notion of pay-for-play is hardly new. In 1958, Alan Freed, the disc jockey to whom the term “Rock 'n' Roll” is attributed, was accused of accepting payments from record companies in exchange for playing their songs. In 1960, in response to the accusations made against Freed and other deejays, Congress made payola, or pay-to-play, illegal, with stiff fines. But questions of just where advertising begins and journalism ends have dogged the media ever since. As the numbers at the bottom of financial statements go from black to red, there's been increasing pressure on editorial departments in print, television and radio to blur the line between journalism and advertising. The key to remaining on the right side of ethics and the law is identifying the type of content.
“It has to be clearly, clearly labeled that a reasonable person would think it's paid,” said Al Tompkins, an expert on ethics and television news with the Poynter Institute. “When I watch a beer advertisement, I know it's advertising. Would it be just as clear if I watched this content on this show?”
For Tompkins, the trouble with payola is that it undermines the credibility of the news, and the news doesn't exactly have a lot of credibility capital to lose right now. A survey by the Pew Research Center released Monday showed that trust in news organizations has dropped to record lows, with 74 percent of respondents saying they believe that media are influenced by powerful interests.
Richard Jones, general manager of XETV Channel 6 in San Diego, says his station doesn't sell news segments on the morning shows, but he said some of the segments on the lifestyle show San Diego Living are paid for.
“That's an entertainment and lifestyles show,” Jones told CityBeat in an interview. “We give businesses a little more time to get their message out.”
CityBeat contacted several businesses that appeared on recent episodes of the show with a mixed response. Flairaholiks, a bartending business, and Dr. David Hornbrook, a dentist, both said they went on the show looking for exposure and that no money changed hands. But others CityBeat called, notably Dr. Keith Kanner, a psychologist, and family-law attorney Garrison “Bud” Klueck, refused to answer questions about whether they paid to be on the air. Kanner even hung up on CityBeat.
But the ultimate question for San Diego Living is whether or not viewers can tell when a segment is paid for or not. Public-relations professional Marisa Valbona, head of CIM Incorporated, didn't think it was nearly clear enough. She told CityBeat she'd had a client, a plastic surgeon, who really wanted to be on the show. He booked 15 segments for $1,500 a month, and he was scheduled to appear twice a month. Valbona watched the show to get a sense of just how well viewers were alerted to the fact that the segment was bought and paid for by her client.
“It just really looked a lot like a real news show,” she said in an interview. “It just seemed really unethical, so I ended that relationship.”
Valbona is also the ethics officer for the Public Relations Society of America's San Diego chapter. She said she's been getting these calls for years, which is part of what drove her to take on that role. She and other public-relations people CityBeat interviewed said that outside the major media organizations, they get frequent calls from Internet startups, cable stations and other smaller outfits looking to sell air time.
Valbona said she's gotten so many of these kinds of pitches that she's learned to spot the pitch long before it comes.
“They call and they say, ‘Hi, I saw your news release—I can't wait to feature your client on the news!'” she said. “When it's really enthusiastic like that, alarms start to go off in my head. I know I'm going to get pitched soon. They pitch it like a full-on news program. Then I get back to them later, and they say, ‘Oh, I forgot to mention, it's going to be $20,000.'”
To hear public-relations professionals tell it, this sort of pay-for-play arrangement, even with the smaller players, is really harming journalism.
“It's diluting the news content,” Valbona said. “It's not making the news content any better. I have family members who are in news—we hate it. I know that news needs to make a buck, but this is not the way to do it.”