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Monday, August 08, 2005

CPTV interviews for sale to the biggest donor

It's a sad day when a sponsor can pay off public television to do a story on your corporation. The lines of jouranlistic ethics is breached when this happens and not only should the viewer be VERY skeptical of what they are seeing, but demand that this type of pratice stop immediately.

Although it's clearly unethical, the top brass at CPTV are pressing on reporters to interview organizations that donate to the network. The Hartford Courant exposed the web of corporate influence at the network highlighting the hardball tactics of Jerry Franklin, the president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting Inc.

If corparations can pay to get their people quoted on the air, should we assume that large political organizations can pay off CPTV and get the same treatment?
Mead and the lead producer, Mary Ollie Newman, started work on the first show, on heart disease, by finding a woman being treated at Hartford Hospital for heart problems. They shot interviews in January with Dr. Paul Thompson and Dr. William Bowden, the director of cardiology at Hartford.
And then the trouble began.

Soon afterward, the producers got a call from Jay Whitsett, vice president of programming for CPTV. Whitsett told them that Jerry Franklin, the president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting Inc., was demanding that the producers shoot interviews with doctors from St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center instead.

St. Francis was a key financial sponsor of the women's health series.

"Jerry just called and read me the riot act. He told me jobs are at stake here [meaning me]," Whitsett wrote in a Jan. 13 e-mail to the producers. "All [I] can say is that Jerry wants ST Francis people in show #1 and I will be hung out to dry if it doesn't happen. I'm sorry for this but I'm getting hammered."

Facing a situation that they felt was forcing them to breach a basic rule of journalism ethics - that content decisions are kept inviolate from the desires of advertisers or sponsors - Newman and Mead quit the project in January. In March, former Fox 61 reporter Carolee Salerno also withdrew for similar reasons.

"To just point-blank say, `You're supposed to interview our doctors ...' There certainly may be a doctor at Hartford Hospital or some physician at Yale who's better qualified, so how can they dictate that?" said Newman, who won two Emmy awards during 25 years of work as a television producer and reporter. "That's our business, to find out the best and try to do the best story."

The demand by top management that journalists subjugate journalistic decisions to the financial needs of a sponsor was not isolated to the women's health series, current and former producers at CPTV said. They said it was just one example of a pattern in which the CPTV chief has ceded editorial control to sponsors, potentially undermining the credibility of the station's programming with viewers.

"I think these guys are for sale," said one angry CPTV producer, who asked for anonymity, saying he was afraid of retribution from Franklin. "It's a slippery slope. They haven't gotten to the point of where they are saying, `Tell us what you want and we'll do it,' but they are headed that way."


In particular, critics said, Franklin has forced out executives whom he views as potential rivals or threats. One chief financial officer who questioned what appeared to be personal expenses Franklin charged to CPBI several years ago found himself out of work shortly afterward.

Bob Douglas, who covered Connecticut politics and legislature as a reporter for CPTV in the 1980s and 1990s, said Franklin is "kind of a mean-spirited guy."

Even then, "there was a sense that Jerry took care of Jerry first, and then dealt with the institution," said Douglas, who left public broadcasting a decade ago. "In my days there, if there was an election for CEO, Jerry would have been impeached."
We should expect better from public television and Franklin should never be allowed to get away with this.