At least one chain of local TV stations has found a solution for the nobody-wants-to-pay-for-journalism-anymore conundrum: product placements on the local news. The Meredith Corporation has struck a deal that has placed cups of McDonald’s iced coffee on the anchor desks at its Las Vegas affiliate; McDeals are in place at several other affiliates as well.
(The beauty part is, as the local Las Vegas Sun report notes, while the cups are from McDonald’s, that’s not actually iced coffee in them. What type of material serves as a placeholder—plastic? brown-dyed glue? Kahlua?—is left to our imaginations.)
So how great an offense against the fourth estate is this?
It’s easy to get into high-dudgeon mode over this and decry how everything’s for sale in our modern world. But this is probably one of those journalistic controversies that’s more damaging to the perceived credibility of journalists than it is to the actual flow of public information. (For starters: product placement or no placement, how authoritative is the news coming from someone with a freaking cup of iced coffee on her desk? What is this, a news set or a Jiffy Lube? Why not just munch on a bear claw while you’re at it?)
As I wrote several years ago when USA Today started running ads on its front page, journalism watchdogs tend to get exercised about advertising deals more in proportion to their visibility than to their actual harmfulness. The problem, as with all influences on news, is whether it’s hidden: as long as it’s out in the open and clearly acknowledged as advertising, you can slap a Pennzoil logo on your weatherman’s blazer for all I care. If the placement is acknowledged on-screen in some way that’s as prominent as an ad, that’s fine; if it’s snuck into the credits in fine print, not so much.
News programs shouldn’t deliberately deceive people to make money; I think we can all agree on that. But I have a harder time buying the argument that the endorsement is compromising because money is changing hands. What happens if there’s an embarrassing story involving McDonald’s? Will the product placement affect the coverage? The answer is: it’ll affect, or not affect, the coverage the same way regular commercial sales do—except that the regular commercials bring in more money, so they matter more.
A cup of Mickey D’s on an anchor desk, on the other hand, is just bad because it looks bad. And while that’s no reason to celebrate it, there are far more insidious things affecting local news, like—as the New York Times story mentions—the widespread use of corporate-produced “video news releases” as news reports to fill up air time: essentially, commercials aired as news so that the station doesn’t have to pay to produce journalism.
The corollary problem, of course, is that so much local news (and for that matter national news, especially in the morning) is just so soul-killingly stupid, no matter how it’s financed. You have to love the defense that the Las Vegas station’s news director gave to the Sun:
[T]he cups are put out only after 7 a.m., when the hard news gives way to light lifestyle news.
“I stress the fact that it is being done on a program that is a combination of news entertainment and lifestyle programming,” Bradshaw says.
In other words: It’s not like we’re putting this on the real news, people! We’re putting it on the stupid news! The stupid news, naturally, runs for two hours.
I’d rather have product placements galore—again, prominently acknowledged—if it meant that news stations had enough money to produce quality news. Of course, what’s more likely is that affiliates will just start striking placement deals, continue to gut news coverage, and pocket the profit. I’m as certain of it, in fact, as I am of the consistently refreshing taste of Starbucks’ iced green-tea latte. Slurrrrrp! Mmmmmm—it’s info-licious!