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Volume 68, Issue 105, Thursday, February 27, 2003

Opinion

Commercial news is tainted

Brandon Moeller
Opinion Columnist

Whoa ? gas is expensive. What used to cost me $15 a tank now costs more than $17.

At most local dispensaries, gas is now priced over $1.50 a gallon. KPRC-TV Channel 2 has devised a new way to help consumers out at the pump and boost the ratings for two of their news broadcasts.

The station's Nightbeat report at 10 p.m., to which my parents subject me quite often, is now showing its viewers where they can purchase gas for 99 cents a gallon.

Tuesday night's broadcast informed viewers of two outside-of-the-610-loop locations where early-morning drivers could take advantage of the offer from 5 to 7 a.m. Being well outside of Houstonis core isn't the only thing the two gas stations share in common. Randalls food market operated both stations. Safeway owns a majority of Randalls ? 51 percent of the company.

On Tuesday's broadcast, Channel 2 seemingly claimed full responsibility for the discounted price, with the co-hosts bragging about how Channel 2 was trying to save consumers money. But when I called their newsroom, the news desk told me that Randalls (or other participants) picked up a substantial share of the cost.

If that's true, then Channel 2 lied on the air. The hosts specifically beat the point into my head: Channel 2 is picking up the balance of the gas to save consumers money. I've always been skeptical of TV news, especially what I see on Channel 2, but this is a new low.

I called News Director Nancy Shafran, the only person who can officially speak on behalf of the news team for the station according to the person at the news desk, but she did not return my call before press time. 

It figures that the sponsoring gas station would pick up part of the tab of the discount to consumers. After such publicity, I'm sure tons of early birds were lined up to take advantage of the offer.

But I'm not sure many drove too far out of their way to do so.

Saving 50 cents a gallon could probably save me $5 to $7 dollars, but that's still not worth waking up and driving around at that hour.

Regardless, the station shouldn't be making business deals on their broadcasts. I know, I know ? they must do so if they are to compete in Houston's media market where every so-called news outlet wants to be the next "official sponsor" of events such as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo or whatever other event is the trendy thing-to-do in this city.

This weekend, I witnessed some awful coverage of the Rodeo's barbecue kick-off event that KTRK-TV aired. It was basically a 30-minute commercial advertising the barbecue event and who made it happen. This sort of "schmoozing" is fun, I know. I've got nothing against beer and barbecue, believe you me.

But there are people that do. In Madison, Wisconsin, the animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently urged that city's government to switch its official drink from milk to beer, noting that the latter is better for you because of how milk is processed these days.

Many people in Houston do not support the rodeo because they believe it is cruel to animals. Local PETA chapters agree. So has Channel 13 covered this issue, and when they do, will they become inherently biased toward the rodeo just to be able to maintain their ability to run commercials aired as journalism? What about the Houston Chronicle? They're also a major sponsor of the rodeo. Will they cover the story of dissent?

If KPRC is in a business deal with gas stations, what's going to happen when their reporters try to do a critical story of the gas/grocery chain? Will the show's producers convince them to not anger the advertiser and perhaps threaten their job security over the issue?

I say let the commercials remain in their normal format, so that valuable news time is not compromised, and so I can go to the bathroom during the breaks and not hear them trying to sell me something when they should be telling me what's going on in this giant city.

The station's Web site, www.click2houston.com, offers another consumer gas-buying service. Visitors can e-mail where they've seen low gas prices, and Channel 2 will post the lowest prices. This isn't so ethically questionable because it's the viewers that are picking the gas stations and not the station's sales department or the gas chains.

Moeller, a senior communication major, can be reached at brandonmoeller@hotmail.com.

 

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