Utopia Theater: The Slippery Slope

A Wall Street Journal exposé last April on television "tech gurus" who are paid by manufacturers to show products on the air caught the attention of many media watchdogs. The story, by James Bandler, also caught a buzz among working journalists, including those of us at Stereophile and UAV, since the story's main focus was on former Stereophile writer and current Today Show tech editor Corey Greenberg.

Greenberg was under contract to companies like Sony, Creative Technology, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple. He received fees of $15,000 from them to mention their products on local television "tech segments" throughout the country sent via satellite feed.

Exactly how does this work? Using a single setup in a rented TV studio, a "tech guru" can have an array of products on a table and present them repeatedly in taped interviews with local anchors, perhaps receiving an additional fee for services from the local station. Not a bad take for an afternoon's work—and according to the WSJ story, Greenberg's fee was low compared to what some of the other "experts" get. (You can read the complete story on the WSJ Web site only if you have a paid subscription. Also, check out Howard Kurtz's take on the Washington Post Web site.)

I put "expert" in quotes because many of these "all-purpose" tech guys, Greenberg included, can hardly claim expertise in some of the product fields in which they play. For instance, Greenberg once mocked me in the pages of Home Theater as a ". . .part-time Stereophile writer and full time housewife," and admonished me to "not burn the casserole." Yet there he was on his second Today Show appearance at the Chicago Kitchen Show dispensing "expert" advise on cookware, about which I suspect he had little or no knowledge—certainly less than I have as a very experienced cook in a variety of ethnic cuisines (over 30 years cooking Cantonese and Szechwan/Hunan food, for example).

These "pay to play" satellite marathons may look and feel like local news segments in Tulsa, Tuscaloosa, or wherever, but given the money that changes hands, they more closely resemble infomercials. Why wouldn't a company pay $15,000 to get that kind of exposure in who knows how many markets, and have it presented as a news piece delivered by a self-proclaimed "tech guru," instead of paying much more money to produce a commercial and buy advertising time?

Greenberg defended himself by claiming he'd never taken money to put products on The Today Show, but if you take fifteen grand from Apple to show the iPod on local TV, and then show it on The Today Show, there's far more than a perception of impropriety—at least, once the arrangement goes public after the fact as this one did thanks to The Wall Street Journal's digging.

The arrangement exposed, Greenberg now says he'll no longer take money for appearances on local TV shows according to a story on the Accuracy in Media Web site. Why Apple felt it necessary to pay anyone anything to promote the iPod is a question I can't begin to answer.

Many journalists moonlight as on-air experts (myself included), but no journalist writing for a legitimate magazine, newspaper, or Web site would take money from a company to show its products on television. At least one hopes!

With that in mind, I thought I'd disclose some of the things I've done and still do, while continuing to believe that I am behaving ethically. After all, Greenberg offered a defense for taking large sums of money to put products on TV—a lame one, to be sure, wherein he described himself as a "one-man magazine" taking advertising money with one hand and dispensing unbiased tech advice with the other. Apparently, that was sufficient to have deluded him into thinking it was okay. So here's my public ethical "reality check."

I have taken trips on manufacturer's dimes. When I say "trips," I don't mean bus rides to Secaucus (though I've taken those, too). I have traveled to Japan in business class (nice!) and been put up in deluxe hotels, all paid for by Hitachi so I could visit their plasma-manufacturing facility and get to know the company. B&O flew me to Denmark to see and hear their new high-performance car-audio system developed for Audi. Lexus packed me off to a Palm Springs resort to check out the Mark Levinson car-audio system.

Manufacturers like Sony and Toshiba have flown me to their line shows in Las Vegas (Caesar's Palace) and New Mexico (Grand Hyatt Tamaya), respectively, to see their new products, and they paid for massages ("happy endings" not included) and other great activities. I went to The Grammy Awards courtesy of Belkin and sat in their corporate skybox at the Staples Center. Food, travel, and accommodations are almost always covered by the manufacturer for such trips and events.

I accept "tchotchkes" (aka "swag"). I have luxury pens, noise-canceling headphones, leather bags, shower radios, an MP3 player (not Mac compatible, feh!), even a DVD camcorder given out to all who attended one event.

All of the A/V gear I own was purchased at deeply discounted accommodation prices, and I have my pick of the litter. But I didn't buy the Lexicon RV-8 receiver because of the price; I bought it because it's the best one I've heard and used. Same with my 65-inch Hitachi CRT RPTV. I could own any microdisplay, plasma, LCD, or any other type of display out there—especially at the price I'd pay—but I haven't seen a better overall video image than I get with that CRT. It might not have the resolution of some newer sets, but none that I've seen so far can match the black level and overall color performance of that old clunker.

My music-review Web site is financed by advertising from manufacturers whose products I have reviewed.

That's about all I have to disclose. I've shown my entire hand.

Now my defense: When it comes to trips, if you don't go to the line shows, you don't get to see and write about the upcoming products unless your employer is willing to foot the bill, which most—including ours—are not. I have found factory trips to be exceedingly helpful in understanding how products are made and how a company operates. For example, my impressions of Hitachi and B&O were turned upside down after my visits, and not because they let me sit in the front of the airplane.

Yes, my music review site does accept advertising from companies whose products I review. If that offends you, consider that it's out in the open for all to see. Imagine what might be going on behind your back with some reviewers. Your imagination's worst nightmare may or may not be correct.

And don't imagine that our industry is unique. If you think consumer-electronics manufacturers are generous with journalists, you should go on a junket sponsored by an automobile company. I did. I met all the name writers in that field enjoying even more sumptuous hospitality.

Perhaps the TV tech gurus justify taking money because "everybody's does it." That's the excuse that causes me the greatest discomfort. When I go on these trips, most of the tech writers there are people I know—and I don't get invited as often as some. They all take the trips, they all eat the meals, they all glom the tchotchkes, they all buy at accommodation prices. They don't all have Web sites that take advertising, so perhaps I've taken it one step beyond.

But if you think I would trade my reviewing credibility for factory visit, a leather bag, a shower radio, or even a DVD camcorder, not to mention a plate of sushi and some good cold sake, please read my upcoming review of the Hitachi 50VX915 LCD RPTV, with which I was, to put it mildly, not completely satisfied. My credibility is my "working capital." I wouldn't trade it for a trip or a bauble.