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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Both Sides Now 

Via our esteemed colleague Susan Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla: You may recall the story of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, the reporters who were fired by a Florida Fox TV affiliate when they refused to "soften" an investigative series on artificial hormones in the face of threatened reprisals by Monsanto and the dairy industry. They filed a whistleblower suit and won a $425,000 award, but that verdict was subsequently overturned when an appellate court bought Fox's argument that "since it is not technically against any law, rule or regulation for a broadcaster to distort the news, the journalists were never entitled to employee protections as whistleblowers in the first place."

But Akre and Wilson have other cards to play:
Two TV journalists have challenged the broadcast license renewal of WTVT Fox-13, asserting it deliberately broadcast false and distorted news reports . . . .

The 98-page petition to deny the station's pending license renewal presents the Federal Communications Commission with support for the claim that the licensee is not operating in the public interest and "lacks the good character to do so."

The challenge stems from what the reporters describe as a year-long experience working at the station where they resisted their managers who, they allege, repeatedly ordered them to distort a series of news reports about the secret use of an artificial hormone injected in dairy cattle throughout Florida and nationally.

The petition also charges WTVT violated federal rules about keeping viewer complaints and comments on file. The reporters say no communication regarding the dispute over the hormone story was found in the files even though there were several examples of letters that should have been there, they said.

"The public interest is by law the primary obligation of every broadcaster who uses our public airwaves to make their corporate fortune, especially when broadcasting the news," said Akre in a release . . . .

Fox officials never pointed to a single inaccuracy in the proposed broadcasts, they say.
Our distinguished colleagues at Cursor alert us to an item from the opposite end of the journalistic-integrity spectrum -- a profile of Richard Berman, "consumer advocate" by day, corporate lobbyist by night:
Last spring, when the anti-fast-food documentary Super Size Me began opening in American theaters, an opinion writer named Richard Berman swung into action. He cranked out a scathing op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times that blasted the film for "serving up a flawed premise: that we're powerless to stop Big Food from turning us into a nation of fatties."

When legendary TV chef Julia Child died a few months later, Berman saw another opportunity. He wrote a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that used her death as an occasion to debunk the idea that soft drinks are linked to diabetes . . . .

Berman runs an outfit called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which says it's devoted to defending "the right of adults and parents to choose what they eat, drink, and how they enjoy themselves." From his offices a block from the White House, Berman wages a never-ending public-relations assault on doctors, health advocates, scientists, food researchers, and just about anyone else who highlights the health downsides of eating junk food or being obese . . . .

However, while Berman presents himself as a defender of consumers against overbearing bureaucrats and health zealots, he's really defending the interests of another group: restaurant chains, food and beverage companies, meat producers, and others who stand to see profits hampered by government regulations, or even by increased health awareness on the part of customers . . . .

Consider that in addition to running the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), Berman also has another day job: He's the founder and president of an influential Washington lobbying firm, Berman & Co. According to press accounts, the firm has performed for-profit lobbying for -- you guessed it -- many of the same industries served by the center: restaurant chains like Outback, Hooters, and Red Lobster (a spokesman declined comment). Berman has also lobbied for the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurateurs and beverage manufacturers. (On behalf of such clients, he opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, argued against hikes in the federal minimum wage and helped defeat federal legislation that would have imposed a uniform lower blood-alcohol threshold to mark drunken driving -- all regulatory reforms that threatened the profits of his clients.) It's challenging indeed to sort out where the for-profit lobbying against regulation ends and the nonprofit consumer freedom fighting against regulation begins.

So, to recap: Berman the Defender of Consumers runs a nonprofit that collects donations from industries served by Berman the Corporate Lobbyist -- and also pays lucrative fees to Berman the Corporate Lobbyist for his services. If you managed to follow that, you'll probably agree that Berman has pulled off a pretty impressive piece of lobbying jujitsu -- one that says an awful lot about how things really function at the nexus of government policy, big corporations, and the media.
So, if you're reading an opinion column (or, for that matter, a straight news piece), and you stumble across a great bloody gobbet of undisguised corporate/administration spin that makes you wonder whether the writer might not be some kind of, well, double agent -- just remember:

Some of them -- many of them -- quite literally are.

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