Companies that whore

Channel 8 sells its name to advertisers, including one of the state's biggest polluters

How much is the good name of WFAA-TV Channel 8 worth? Apparently, not even six figures.

The going price appears to be $30,000, or at least that's what environmental activist Jim Schermbeck was told when he complained to Channel 8 management about an advertisement that the station is airing in praise of the environmental record of one of the state's biggest air polluters.

The spot lauding Texas Industries is part of the station's "Companies Who Care" promotion. For the ad campaign, local corporations buy the opportunity to be "saluted" by the station for some example of corporate generosity or civic commitment.

For their money, the companies get to appear in three months' worth of ad spots, some of them airing during Channel 8's local news broadcasts. The spots open and close with the Channel 8 logo, and look suspiciously like public-service announcements. The ads do not explain that the companies being "saluted" by Channel 8 have paid for the privilege.

As part of the promotional campaign package, Channel 8 also takes out an advertisement in The Dallas Morning News plugging the companies. Channel 8 and the Morning News, of course, are media siblings, owned by parent A. H. Belo Corp.

Schermbeck heads Downwinders At Risk, a local environmental group formed to cross swords with Texas Industries, specifically about emissions from TXI's Midlothian concrete plant.

State regulators have listed the Midlothian plant as the greatest single manufacturing source of air pollution in the Dallas area, pumping about 12,000 tons of dirt, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other matter into the air each year.

Even as the flattering Channel 8 ads are being shown, TXI is seeking a state permit that would increase the capacity--and emissions--from its Midlothian plant. Downwinders At Risk is trying to convince local governments in Dallas and Tarrant counties to oppose the new permit. Public opinion, at the moment, could be a factor in determining how much opposition swells against the plant.

That's why Schermbeck says he was floored earlier this month when he saw Channel 8 running a spot saluting TXI.

In the ads, the station sings praises for TXI's "dedication to the preservation of the environment and our earth's resources." The ads specifically cite the company's efforts to develop wetlands, and its "fuels recovery and recycling program," a fancy way of saying that the plant burns hazardous waste as part of its production process.

Schermbeck says TXI is free to buy all the advertising time it wants, but he was stunned to see Channel 8 granting its imprimatur to one of the most environmentally controversial companies in town.

"There's a qualitative difference between time TXI buys and a public-service announcement like this where Channel 8 is endorsing the company," Schermbeck says.

Schermbeck says he called Nancy Davis in the station's sales department to find out why Channel 8 had decided to shill for TXI.

Davis, Schermbeck says, explained that companies can buy into the "Companies Who Care" promotion for $30,000. Neither Davis nor station manager Cathy Creany returned phone calls from the Dallas Observer seeking information on the promotional campaign.

Environmentalists believe the ads allow TXI to wrap itself in Channel 8's reputation at a time when public support could play a role in TXI's quest for a new state permit.

Schermbeck also says that viewers are being misled because they are not told the promotional spots are actually paid advertising.

Harold Green, director of communications for TXI, says his company is making no effort to piggyback on the reputation of Dallas' media monolith. TXI has no control over when the promotional ads air, Green says.

His company decided to join the ad campaign because "we think it's an excellent campaign on behalf of companies in this community who have demonstrated they are doing things to make a difference," Green says.

TXI is "proud" of its environmental efforts, he says, and welcomed the opportunity to strut its stuff as part of Channel 8's campaign. "I assume we are no different than any other company that is a part of this program," Green says.

The ad campaign does not, in fact, appear to discriminate against companies with poor environmental track records.

Other companies being saluted in the current series of "Companies Who Care" ads include Pilgrim's Pride, whose chicken processing plants have rung up some of the largest pollution fines in state history, and TU Electric, which runs the perpetually star-crossed Comanche Peak nuclear power plant.

One troubling aspect of the ad campaign, Schermbeck says, is that the spots sometimes air during Channel 8's news broadcasts, further reinforcing the inference that Channel 8 is blessing the corporations involved.

Such timing also casts a pall over the objectivity of the station's news coverage, he says. "[The news department] has treated us OK whenever there's been a story, so I don't think this has influenced their news department at all," Schermbeck says. "But it just looks funny and it causes them to have some credibility problems in the future because of the appearance."

Channel 8 News Director John Miller does not share that concern. "The news department and the sales department are separate deals," Miller says. "They don't tell us what they're doing, and we don't tell them what we're doing, and that's the way it should be. I didn't know about this [TXI ad] until I saw it on the air, and it's really none of our business. I'm not concerned.

 
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