To pimp its sugary, 200-calorie iced coffees, fast food giant McDonald's offered to pay some local TV newscasts for product placement. And of course the newscasts went for it, since local TV journalism is where ethical standards go to die. Meredith Corporation is putting the drinks in front of anchors at the Fox affiliate in Las Vegas (pictured) and at two CBS affiliates elsewhere. Tribune Company has the coffee at its Fox affiliate in Seattle. Even national Fox News is playing ball, placing McDonald's product at the News Corporation-owned station in Chicago. Station operators offered the Times any number of excuses, but the best has to be from the news director at the Las Vegas affiliate: He argues the placement is ethically OK because it is restricted to the "lighter, news-and-lifestyle" portion of his morning news show. Sounds like the portion of the program that might normally be given over to, say, segments on weight loss, fitness or preventing kids from becoming obese. But these days, if the station wants to do any reports that might upset McDonald's, it is supposed to yank the lucrative cups:
"I'm kind of relying, my client is relying, on just the inner workings of that station," said [Brent Williams, account supervisor at Karsh/Hagan, the advertising agency that arranged the deal]. "Not that editorial would ever give a heads-up to sales or be expected to give a heads-up to sales, but these are professionals. They do realize that some businesses' brands, some businesses' reputations, could be at stake in terms of how commerce and news are interacting here."
Setting aside how the deal complicates reporting on certain topics, one also can't help but note how it highlights those parts of the news operation already considered journalistically weakest. For the Las Vegas station, the second part of the morning newscast can be sold for product placement, but not the first, since... the first contains the real, actual, trustworthy journalism? At other stations mentioned in the Times story, the entire morning newscast is marked off this way.
The stations are moving forward with the product placements despite the fact that the national news divisions ABC, NBC and CBS have ruled out such practices as misleading. It's almost enough to make one wonder if the local affiliates care more about ratings than presenting a balanced, helpful newscast.
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll take a break from all this journalistic hand-wringing and enjoy a crisp, cool Miller High Life. It is truly the champagne of beers!