Consumer Reporter Censorship

A combination of a recession in advertising revenue, more competition for the advertising dollar due to more stations, and weak-kneed television station managers is producing censorship and, sometimes, dismissals of television consumer reporters around the country.

The champion tv censors continue to be local auto dealers. Back, in 1968, the Miami Valley Auto Dealers Association around Dayton, Ohio, pulled their entire ads from the station that carried Phil Donahue’s Show because he had the temerity to have the author of a critical book about auto dealer sales practices on the air. In 1989, Remar Sutton, a consultant to the National Credit Union Association, who lectured all over the country to credit union members about smarter buying against auto dealer sales tricks, also got the freeze on some broadcast stations.

The matter of Silvia Gambardella’s tenure as a crack consumer reporter at Minneapolis’ WCCO-TV has brought this censorship–self-censorship connection to renewed visibility. She is a tenacious and accurate journalist who reported on defective seatbelts, where shoppers can get the best buy on a used car, violations of Minnesota’s lemon law, etc.

Some local auto dealers objected. The station was alarmed and established an in-house committee to meet with dealers from time to time. Auto dealer advertising amounted to a hefty chunk of overall advertising revenues for the station.

A station of high reputation, WCCO-TV had a newsroom that didn’t like the smell of these private meetings. Then the other shoe dropped. Management told Gambardella that her days as a consumer reporter were over, but she could stay as a general assignment reporter for half the salary she was receiving.

Her associates in the newsroom and quite a few viewers rallied around the principle that the sales division should not interfere with the news division. To his credit, the station manager, Bob McGann, reinstated Gambardella with a two year contract. Coverage in the local papers by the television columnists also helped restore WCCO’s resistance to temptation.

But hers is a rare success story. The fate of consumer reporters in what was once a ferocious three-way television competition over consumer news in the Chicago market has not been good. The word “decimated” has been used to describe the decline of consumer reporting in that city.

Polls galore have demonstrated the viewers’ interest and desire for television consumer reporting. In Philadelphia, Herb Denenberg’s regular evening spot on WCAU has been a viewer’s magnet. And Marvin Zindler in Houston is an institution.

But in the current Fall issue of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal (IRE Journal), there is a long feature titled, “The Bigger Chill” that cites numerous examples of “the terrifying trend to clamp down on advertiser-sensitive reporting in television.”

KIRO-TV consumer reporter Herb Weisbaum produced a three-part story on Puget Sound prescription drug prices wherein he had a detailed comparison of the prices in 100 Western Washington state stores. Management forced Weisbaum to drop the comparisons of named stores. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the message from top management.

In Cincinnati, WLWT-TV consumer reporter Noel Morgan’s long expose on fraudulent auto sales practices led to auto dealers canceling about $750,000 in advertising. “Before long, we weren’t doing any more car stories, Morgan said. He attributes his leaving the station to advertiser pressure.

Numerous examples of censorship were named in the article. A team of reporters at KPRC-TV (Houston) in 1986 were suddenly told by their superiors to drop a three-month probe into Continental Airlines alleged safety violations. Continental was a big advertiser on the station. The award-winning KPRC investigative unit was disbanded shortly thereafter.

The IRE Journal also noted some acts of what goes for courage these days. WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. let reporter Rick Nelson air stories about a car dealership that sold used cars as new. Dealers, according to the Journal, boycotted the station of some $1 million in advertising revenue.

Weisbaum says that he spent “most of this year’s IRE convention talking to consumer reporters from all over the country. It’s happening everywhere. Everyone is feeling the sting of economic self-censorship.”

Well, what to do about this? There needs to be a capability to print the text of any television story, that is cut by advertiser pressure, and distribute it in tabloid form throughout the community. There needs to be a more vigorous national anti-censorship group to condemn such stifling of the First Amendment in the local Community’s other media. Then there would be some additional calculations for the censors and self-censors to ponder before they pounce on their reporters.

This vigilance should not be beyond the energies and willpower of the journalistic fraternity.

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