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Illinois Tollway enters deal with Ch 5 and 32

Robert Feder,   Time Out


Sweetheart deal takes a toll on Chicago television news ethics

January 4th, 2011 @ 12:00 am

Illinois TollwayMaybe I missed it, but I don’t recall seeing anything on NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 or Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32 last month when the Illinois Tollway announced a $4.2 million “partnership” with the two Chicago television stations. Then again, when you hear what the deal entails, you’ll understand why they probably were better off keeping it quiet anyway.

The state agency that oversees 286 miles of interstate tollways in Illinois signed three-year agreements giving the stations exclusive access to its 75 roadway cameras for use online and in their newscasts and traffic reports. In exchange for the live video feeds, Channel 5 and Channel 32 agreed to provide “advertising and promotional opportunities” to the agency worth an estimated $4.2 million altogether.

Among other goodies, the stations are to provide “on-air advertisements, co-branding opportunities, on-air talent at Tollway events, Tollway messages in traffic and breaking news e-mail alerts, a presence on the traffic page of both stations’ Web sites and Tollway information in Twitter and Facebook messages.” They also agreed to pay for upgrades to access the system’s digital cameras.

Clearly, it’s a bonanza for the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority at a time when money is tighter than ever. In announcing the deal, executive director Kristi Lafleur said:

“We’re always looking for creative ways to leverage the Tollway’s existing assets and these partnerships are a great example of that. The Tollway has no budget for advertising and we depend on these advertising and promotional opportunities to help keep our customers informed. These new partnerships will help us enhance customer service and keep our customers in the loop about new and existing initiatives. We’re excited to work with NBC and Fox and look forward to new ways we can promote what we’re doing at the Tollway.”

Well, I say the deal stinks.

Partnerships between news organizations (or their parent companies) and government agencies are never a good thing. For journalists, they can only lead to the appearance of compromises and conflicts of interest. Reporters are supposed to monitor and scrutinize the actions of government officials. They shouldn’t be involved in promoting them. It’s that simple.

In this case, how can viewers be sure they’re not being shortchanged when news arises that involves the Illinois Tollway system? Isn’t there something inherently wrong about a station’s “on-air talent” participating in the agency’s events? Just the thought of it makes me cringe.

While Channel 32 is new to the arrangement, it’s actually an extension for Channel 5, which began its partnership with the Tollway in 2004. When the subject first came up, members of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association raised concerns about whether any station should have sole access to newsworthy video shot by government-owned cameras. “If they’re paid for with taxpayer/tollpayer funds, then shouldn’t their footage be public record?” one member asked. “And if it is, in fact, publicly funded, how can one outlet have exclusive rights to it?”

Partnerships with government, competing media organizations and advertisers have become so common in newsrooms that they rarely raise hackles. But that wasn’t always the case.

carol-marinNearly two decades ago, when she was at Channel 5 the first time around, Carol Marin twice was suspended from her job as news anchor when she objected to reading what she considered blatant plugs for sponsors. In both instances, the station had partnered with advertisers to promote special segments on the news. Marin’s clashes with management ultimately led to her final showdown and resignation in 1997.

“I detest marketing when it comes to news,” Marin said at the time. “I believe reporters should not join with commercial entities.”

I don’t know too many other anchors or reporters who’d put their jobs on the line today if they were asked to shill for a sponsor or promote a partnership for their station.