- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Most news organizations forbid their employees from endorsing commercial products, but what about “celebrity journalists” who become authors?

When a television anchor or a prominent newspaper reporter publishes a book and hits the talk show circuit to plug it, isn’t that a kind of commercial endorsement?

Take recent books by Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, two of NBC News’ biggest stars.

“The Greatest Generation,” Mr. Brokaw’s 1998 tribute to World War II veterans, has sold several million copies and spawned two sequels.

Mr. Brokaw stepped down from his longtime “NBC Nightly News” perch in December but still contributes to the network. The success of his books has made him a frequently quoted source on World War II.

Similarly, Mr. Russert was a ubiquitous presence on TV and radio talk shows last year when he published a tribute to his father, “Big Russ & Me: Father and Son — Lessons of Life.”

The public appearances Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Russert make to promote their books do not make them pitchmen, said Barbara Levin, an NBC News spokeswoman.

“Discussing one’s own work is not at all the same as promoting [or] endorsing a commercial product,” she said.

But books are products, and people should keep that in mind when a reporter turns up in the news media to hawk one, said Scott M. Libin, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“When a journalist who has written a book gives an interview to a radio program or sits down with a feature reporter from a newspaper, that person becomes the subject of the story,” Mr. Libin said.

Tom Fenton, who retired last year as CBS’ London correspondent, has been touring since last month to promote his sharp critique of the press, “Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.”

“I wasn’t uncomfortable selling a book, because I was really selling an idea. As a journalist, what I really found uncomfortable was being an advocate” for better news coverage, said Mr. Fenton, who estimates he has given about 70 interviews promoting “Bad News.”

He said he waited until he retired to write his book because he feared he would be tempted to pull punches if he wrote it while still on CBS’ payroll. Since the book’s release, he said he has received “poison pen” e-mails from three network vice presidents.

Mr. Fenton did not discuss his financial information, but said “Bad News” won’t make him rich. “I’ll be lucky to break even,” he said.

The Washington Times and other newspapers often publish excerpts of newsworthy books written by their reporters.

It would be irresponsible for a news organization to go overboard flogging the work of an author on its staff, Mr. Libin said.

CNN, for example, has permitted Lou Dobbs to become an outspoken critic of moving jobs overseas on his newscast. Last year, Mr. Dobbs wrote a book, “Exporting America: Why Corporate Greed Is Shipping American Jobs Overseas.”

“Obviously [journalists-turned-authors] are cashing in on the reputation that their careers have provided them, but that doesn’t [always] mean it’s a terrible, harmful thing,” Mr. Libin said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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