Mickey Mouse at Channel 7
Channel 7 (KGO-TV) News scored a real coup recently. Evening anchor Terilyn Joe broke into regular programming with stunning live coverage (complete with shots of the KGO news helicopter and narration from a reporter on the ground) of the remarkable rescue of a paraglider who accidentally tangled himself in the cables of the Bay Bridge.
Too bad it was fiction.
The rescue footage, Joe's narration, the entire news event, were all in a scene from the summer kiddie action farce George of the Jungle, released earlier this month by Disney, which owns ABC Inc., which in turn owns Channel 7. Oh, and the reporter in the bit wasn't really a Channel 7 reporter; she was a "Hollywood creation," as Channel 7 News Director Milt Weiss put it last week.
Weiss sounded like he'd be just as happy to wish the whole matter back to Hollywood. At the same time, he refused to concede the movie appearance was a mistake.
"This doesn't come up very often," he said of such requests to use his news crews to report fake stories for the cinema.
Weiss insisted that Channel 7 is "under no compunction" to dance when Disney says to, but, he acknowledged, is always willing to "help another division" of the parent company. After all, Channel 7 already had the news helicopter, the smiley-faced Terilyn Joe, the news set. Using those assets to help Disney -- well, that's called synergy.
Besides, Weiss said, George of the Jungle is not the same as Orson Welles' spoof radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds that seemed so real-to-life it caused widespread panic in 1938. "This is a film that is obviously such a family fantasy, I don't really have a problem with it," Weiss said.
The blurring of the line between news and entertainment has been a focus of journalistic inquiry of late. The debate heated up when the film Contact was released earlier this month by Warner Bros., which is owned by Time Warner. The film makes crass use of the news staff of CNN, which is also owned by Time Warner. Contact's makers go so far as to enlist CNN anchor Bernard Shaw in pretending to report a story on signs of life in outer space. CNN's top news executive eventually declared the exercise had been a mistake and renounced future such collaborations with Time Warner's entertainment arm. The stunt cheapened CNN's journalistic standing, and could have confused the audience as to what was news and what was fiction.
Weiss, however, said he didn't see a journalistic problem with Channel 7's appearance in George.
Channel 7 News has no policy on whether its reporters may play themselves in fictional settings, Weiss said. Each request is weighed as it comes up.
Not so at the network news division of ABC, which owns and operates Channel 7. There's a blanket ban on ABC news personnel acting in any entertainment vehicle, made by ABC or anyone else, according to network news spokesman Arnot Walker. The reason? "We have a public trust," Walker says. Entertainment is kept strictly separate from news.
Does that mean that Channel 7 operates under different journalistic standards? Weiss bridled at the suggestion.
"Our commitment to journalism is just as serious as the network, if not more so," he said.
Why, then, doesn't Channel 7 News place a similar embargo on its own news staff?
"That's their policy, for whatever their reasons are," Weiss said. "That's really their call."
And it's a call Weiss sounded like he wished he'd made. With all the bad press CNN received, he said, he would "probably rethink it, not that I think we did any-thing wrong."
He only said yes to ABC "to have a little fun" and give a boost to the corporate parent.
"If all this has generated a general concern," he opined, "it's certainly not worth doing."
In other words, as long as nobody notices, it must be all right.
Initially, a national trend toward the consolidation of media properties prompted fears that the country's largest non-news conglomerates were trying to buy themselves insulation from uncomfortable journalistic probing.
But the creation of great media empires owned by firms whose first business is not journalism creates a threat to journalistic integrity that is more mundane, and more insidious, than the purchase of protection by, for example, General Electric or the Walt Disney Co.
The decision by Channel 7 News to participate in George of the Jungle is one more morph in television news' gradual transformation into an entertainment product, a marketable commodity.
News once was assumed to be the result of a rigorous process of uncovering facts, verifying them, and weaving them into a narrative both understandable by and relevant to an audience. That the facts often didn't always "fit" cleanly; that news is sometimes "bad" and makes the audience uncomfortable -- these were considered necessary and inevitable results of the journalistic process.
But with its commodification, news is being made "useful" and comfortable; it is at times even created with the express aim of making certain parts of the audience feel good about themselves. What better way to accomplish this transmogrification from the prickly and questioning to the smooth and palatable than to have your newsreaders start with a Hollywood script?
Channel 7 and Terilyn Joe are just local newscasters. No one really takes them seriously, it could be argued, as the San Francisco Chronicle did in a huge editorial takeout two Sundays ago on the blending of news and fiction.
But Channel 7 News blatantly seeks to promote its ABC News pedigree. Bus boards all over town show the Channel 7 and ABC logos juxtaposed over a simple message: "News." In-house materials refer to the station as "Channel 7/ABC."
Most of George's viewers won't have a clue that Terilyn Joe is an actual news anchor playing herself. They'll just assume Joe's an actress and Channel 7's some made-up station -- all a part of the movie. So Channel 7 News will have devalued what little legitimate journalistic currency it could claim -- for what?
A gold star on the corporate ledgers.
When a real disaster or rescue happens on the Bay Bridge, many of us will watch as the news is given to us by the same person who cheerily played along in a phony news event staged for a kiddie jungle farce.
At the rate news and entertainment are morphing into one another, many of us may not notice anything unusual in that very unusual situation.
Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.