Despite a bruising article and editorial last week in the Washington Post criticizing WFLA-Ch. 8 for charging fees to some guests for interviews on its morning show Daytime, station officials say they will not end the practice.
Their position: Daytime isn't a news program, so it isn't bound by the ethics of journalism, which prohibit charging or paying sources for interviews.
"We have thoroughly vetted our ethical approach to Daytime and are extremely comfortable," said WFLA general manager Eric Land on Thursday, noting that an out-of-state advertiser who read the Post coverage subsequently inquired about appearing on the show. "I think the attention and promotion is beneficial to the ongoing promotion of the concept."
It's a variation on the response Land gave when I asked him about the show back in 2001, when my first column on the appearance fees was published in the St. Petersburg Times before Daytime's debut. And it's echoed in a rebuttal sent to the Washington Post on Friday by J. Stewart Bryan III, chairman and chief executive of Media General, which owns WFLA-TV, the Tampa Tribune, TBO.com and 48 other TV stations and newspapers.
The Post's article and editorial, both of which were reprinted last week in the Times, described Daytime as a local version of NBC's Today show, which features both news and entertainment. (The editorial, published in the Post on Friday, called the paid interview practice "boneheaded.")
"The only misleading has been done by the Post in mischaracterizing our program," reads the letter, which compares Daytime to entertainment programs such as Live With Regis and Kelly. The letter notes the show isn't produced by the station's news department (co-host Debra Schrils once worked as a meteorologist at WFLA, however).
WFLA has cloned the concept in its post-Saturday Night Live show, The Spot, which wasn't mentioned in the Post story.
Daytime doesn't disclose its paid appearances until the closing credits, which note, "The following segments were paid advertisements."
"I've been covering the media for 13 years, and I've never come across this sort of blatant, pay-to-play journalism before," said Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, shrugging off WFLA's protest that the show isn't a news program. "I would write a story if Live With Regis and Kelly was asking people for $2,500 to appear."
Daytime, packed with cooking tips, celebrity interviews and movie reviews, lacks Today's live coverage of news events, weather reports and newsy interviews. But it airs immediately after Today ends, weekdays at 10 a.m., and the WFLA station logo (consisting of the NBC peacock and the station call letters) appears on screen during Daytime, as it does during WFLA's news broadcasts.
Viewers may not know some guests they're seeing on Daytime and The Spot have paid to be there, but it can seem obvious even without disclosure. On Friday's edition of the show, co-host Brian Fasulo talked to a salesman from Saturn of Carrollwood during the show's only paid segment. Fasulo helped a customer into her newly purchased car in an exchange that had all the stiffness and overt commercialism of an infomercial.
Still, the lack of obvious labeling during paid segments could erode the station's credibility with viewers - continuing the disturbing trend of blending advertising and nonpaid content. (Newspapers also feature advertisements formatted like news content. But in the Times' case, such sections are prominently labeled and use different typefaces than those found in news stories.)
WFLA's Land lobbed his own ethical criticism at Kurtz, who reported part of his article by listening in on a conversation between a New York-based publicist and a WFLA salesman without notifying the station employee. Land called Kurtz's action "unethical and irresponsible."
The ethics code of the Society for Professional Journalists urges reporters to "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information" except when seeking vital information. But Kurtz was unapologetic.
"I had trouble believing a station would be selling interviews, and I didn't want to take someone else's word for it," said Kurtz, who also hosts CNN's weekly media news show, Reliable Sources. "I don't see why station executives should have any problem ... since they seem to be quite proud of the practice."
During an interview Friday night, Land indicated the station might consider labeling the show's paid content more prominently.
"If the conscience of the community changes, certainly we might consider it," he said. "We're always re-evaluating our product. ... We wouldn't do anything to alienate our audience."