McAdams On: Journalistic Integrity

There was a bit of a flap in the Los Angeles broadcast news community this week culminating with an executive exit. It seems this executive oversaw a purported news segment depicting a “Real Housewife of Orange County” as a KNBC reporter. I didn’t see the segment. James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times did. It turns out Mrs. Vicki Gunvalson of Orange County housewifage was dispatched to a clothing boutique to “interview” folks about new federal credit card rules. It turns out that Mrs. Vicki interviewed her friends.

The exiting executive was Steve Lange, vice president of content for KNBC. His departure coincided with a statement Rainey received from KNBC that Mrs. Vicki’s segment had not lived up to its journalistic standards. Lange’s departure and the statement were merely coincidental, said the organization predicated on revealing truth.

To be fair, KNBC is not alone in obfuscating its own foibles. News organizations of all sizes are among the least transparent businesses. The Times is a newspaper owned by a corporation bankrupted in a buyout designed to avoid taxes.

News organizations rarely investigate one another with considerable steam because they’re all owned by the same hedge fund, with money from everyone’s 401(k). Thus, in that “Lion King” hakuna-matada kind of way, everything is one big circle of something.

On KNBC’s Web site this morning, celebrity gossip stories outnumber local news items. Alongside the never-ending L.A. foreclosure story is one about Tiger Woods’ mistresses (showing cleavage), Rihanna’s get-ups (showing cleavage), and who will replace Megan Fox in “Transformers” (showing same). The Los Angeles Times is leading with the addition of 14,200 jobs in California, followed by the Senate vote on finance reform and the seismographic market indices.

Dollars to donuts, Rihanna’s barely concealed breasts get KNBC more hits than “Markets remain volatile a day after steep decline” generates for the Times.

It’s easy to take shots at KNBC for running the Mrs. Vicki segment as a news piece, though the station may have done the industry a service by redefining a line. “News” has been devolving into infotainment for two decades. What’s newsworthy in this case is the six people who may have noticed that Mrs. Vicki was no reporter.

The fact that news doesn’t pay is merely a free market phenomenon. Journalistic integrity does not add to the bottom line, or at least it’s perceived not to do so. Local news franchises are imploding across the country. They quite literally have to try something new, even though shoving a mic into the hand of a celebimbo isn’t exactly innovative. If numbers had flown for that segment, Mr. Lange might very well be ordering a news piece on a new reality series set in the KNBC newsroom featuring real spoiled brats from Beverly Hills as interns.

There are certainly more egregious violations of news ethics than the Mrs. Vicki report. There will certainly be more. The imperative is not whether these things will occur, it’s if anyone will care.