Is Your TV News Broadcast An Infomercial In Sheep's Clothing?


Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey sheds a little bit of light on people who appear on many of this country’s local newscasts pitching toys — yes, toys! is nothing sacred? — and who are paid by the companies that produce the products being touted. Unfortunately, the people in the newsrooms that chase these stories don’t exactly subscribe to the old journalistic maxim of “If your source says she really really really loves a toy and mysteriously is able to travel around the country with nothing but this particular message in mind, check her income stream out”:

Werner is a lawyer who worked for a couple of toy companies before she went into the promotion business. She told me that the company that hires her to do the tours — New Jersey-based DWJ Television — scrupulously notifies TV stations that toy makers pay for the pitches. DWJ founder Dan Johnson, an ABC News veteran of decades gone by, said the same.

So I picked three stations and morning programs that Werner visited over the summer — Fox 2 in Detroit, Fox 5’s “Good Day Atlanta” and the independent KTVK’s “Good Morning Arizona” in Phoenix — to see how they plugged the Werner segments. A spokesperson for the two Fox stations and the news director at the Phoenix outlet told me they had been told absolutely nothing about Werner being paid to tout products, which ranged from a Play-Doh press to a new Toy Story video game to the Paper Jamz electronic guitar.

Assuming they really didn’t get any notice of Werner’s pay arrangement (and the Phoenix station offered one e-mail that didn’t disclose the sponsorship), that would put the stations in the clear, right?

Wrong. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a newsroom knows that when someone comes through the door offering their expertise, you start asking questions. With Werner, a reasonably diligent news producer, to paraphrase the FCC, would have started by demanding: So, toy gal, do you get a natural high about mechanical bugs and talking books or is someone paying you to make like Tom Hanks in “Big?”

It’s a no-brainer for TV producers to ask where experts are coming from, said DWJ’s Johnson. Believing that an expert would tour the country without pay to tout products is, he said, like believing in the tooth fairy.

Now, this “we had no idea, really” could be the stations playing really dumb — denying their guilt in the hopes that Rainey wouldn’t pursue the matter further. Or it could just be that they don’t get paid enough to care about where their “experts” are coming from, and just hope that the person they have on can be coherent enough to fill those all-important minutes leading up to sports and weather. Or (perhaps most likely) the producers are more than well-acquainted with the writing on the wall pointing toward the LX.TV-ification of their chosen profession and so they’ve decided to just wave the white flag of infoadvertorial nontent early, because what does the word “news” mean at a point in time where people can just fill their heads with updates on the offscreen lives of the Teen Moms and the Kardashians anyway? God, do those producers need a drink, like, now.

(Also, the funny thing about the Big reference? The Paper Jamz guitar is actually a sort of takeoff on the big keyboard Hanks played with his feet in that movie, in that it’s super-thin:

I can see it lasting maybe, what, three or four plays before it shorts out?)