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Media follows the NFL's food trail

Host cities must coddle the media, but ethicists say it hurts the profession.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001

TAMPA -- Mingling among the sharks and jellyfish, with platefuls of pasta alfredo and glasses of rum and vodka, the news media took over the Florida Aquarium to claim one of the perks of covering Super Bowl: Lots of free stuff.

Hosted by the Tampa Bay Super Bowl XXXV Task Force and the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network, Tuesday's night's Media Party featured largesse far beyond unlimited food and drink: Entertainment from the B-52's, a stilt walker, gymnasts, a palm reader, a tarot card reader, a masseuse, and a topless male "lifeguard" in beach shorts.

The Hooters girls were there, signing their calendar. Mayor Dick Greco was there, kissing admirers and flashing the diamond-studded Super Bowl ring he acquired during his years with mall developer Eddie DeBartolo, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.

As part of a city's bid for the Super Bowl, the National Football League requires it to throw a bash for the media, a crowd prone to chronic kvetching about whatever city it is stuck in for game week. Since news coverage helps craft the image of the city and the league, the care and feeding of the media is a crucial concern of image-conscious organizers.

Michael Kelly, executive director of the task force, called the party an opportunity to welcome the media to town, and to promote a few of the city's charms, such as the aquarium.

"It made for a nice local showcase," he said. He guesses that 2,500 people showed up, though it was unclear how many were actually members of the working press.

(St. Petersburg Times staffers attended the party; the newspaper will compensate the task force for the cost.)

"I think the NFL has always been the most media-savvy league, bar none," said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier, a former sportswriter who did not attend the party. The Super Bowl, he said, features "the NFL media machine at its best," and the week's highly efficient but regimented schedule tends to discourage exclusives.

The press corps gets free food, drinks, newspapers and computer access at the Super Bowl media center; they also get police escorts as they are ferried in big buses to events.

The pampering of the press is nothing new, but it makes some journalism ethicists uncomfortable. Writing of the 1984 Super Bowl in Tampa in The News At Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News, Tom Goldstein observed that reporters were "wined, dined and entertained, in the open and almost brazenly," encouraging "a pliant press corps that accepts the Super Bowl on the NFL's terms. "I was taken back at the extravagance in the way the press was treated, and my guess is I would be appalled today," said Goldstein, now the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "There was just sort of this expectation that the reporters were there to be coddled."

Whether journalists' coverage of an event can be influenced with free drinks is arguable, but some ethicists say it creates that perception.

"It may not make any difference, but it doesn't look good, and in an era when our credibility is suffering, why keep hitting the gas pedal when our tires are stuck in the sand?" said Roy Peter Clark, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

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