NBC covered the Kentucky Derby like a state primary election – only worse. First, all the coverage leading up to the race was speculation about who might win, during the race it was about who was leading and coming on strong, and at the end of the race it was all about who won. The coverage deified the winner, once again reinforcing Vince Lombardi’s motto that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” and ignored the tragedy of the gutsy, overbred filly Eight Belles who ran herself to death.
Covering the tragedy might have been a bummer for Derby’s fast food sponsor, Yum Brands, and so NBC joined CBS in proving that it was in the advertising delivery business. Guess who NBC interviewed first after the obligatory rider-owner-trainer interviews and after the official winner was announced? Right, the CEO of Yum Brands, which has its corporate headquarters in Louisville. Of course it was more important to cover the sponsor than to cover the tragedy of Eight Belles and the issue of the greed and overblown ego of owners who over-breed their horses to give them the lungs and heart of an elephant and the ankles of a gazelle.
At least in covering a state primary election, the TV networks interview the candidates and supporters of whoever came in second and even third. At least they discuss to some degree the strategy for the race and even some of the major issues that might have led to the outcome. But I don’t recall even the most egregiously commercial of them conducting a multiple-question cream puff interview with an advertiser.
In the age of public-service-be-damned over-commercialization of the media, as especially television, the walls that used to exist between church and state (editorial and sales) have been demolished by profit-maximizing, greedy CEOs and their MBA, bean-counting minions.
For those who might remember the good old days when the integrity of the news or editorial product was more important than the feelings of an advertiser, and for those of you who can’t imagine that such a halcyon time ever existed, please read the following anecdote sent to me by Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter and author, Nick Kotz, after my previous blog about CBS being in the advertising delivery business.
“In 1967-68, long after I had written a long series of stories about abuses in the meat packing industry, someone at the Des Moines Register, where I was working then, sent me the copy of a speech that the late Frank Eyerly, managing editor of the Register, had made to the Register and Tribune's advertising department. In effect, he told them that they should be proud that the newspaper continued to publish the meat packing stories, even after one of the paper's largest advertisers – a meat packing company – had pulled its advertising in protest of the stories. The stories won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. But that's not the point. The point is that the news editors, backed by management, stood their ground, and then explained to the advertising department why this was a good thing and they should be proud of their paper's integrity. And never a word was ever mentioned to the reporter who wrote the stories. The editor didn't want me to know that the paper was getting economic retaliation. Those were the days.”
Maintain editorial integrity and risk pissing off advertisers. Try suggesting that to NBC’s CEO, Jeff Zucker. He won’t think it’s so yummy.