- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

When CBS News tapped Charles Osgood to host “Sunday Morning” in April 1994, network executives were forced to explain why they were permitting their newest hire to break one of their oldest rules: the ban on newscasters’ endorsing commercial products.

The deal Mr. Osgood signed that spring allowed him to continue doing “The Osgood Files” — a daily commentary for CBS Radio that includes advertisements the host is paid to read.

Commercials by newsmen were once common, but the networks had long since banned them by the time Mr. Osgood took the helm at “Sunday Morning.” CBS decided to bend the rules for him because he was two years into a six-year radio contract and he didn’t want to break that commitment, executives said at the time.

Fair enough. But it’s 11 years later, and Mr. Osgood still is hosting “Sunday Morning” on television and shilling for mattresses, vitamins and other products on the radio.

What gives?

A CBS News spokeswoman said Mr. Osgood’s endorsements have been “allowed to stay in place because his radio commitment was in place when he joined CBS News. By and large, endorsements are not permissible at CBS News.”

Mr. Osgood could not be reached this week. In past interviews, he has said it’s unlikely the products he promotes would make news, and he has cited the many talk-show hosts who read their own advertising scripts, called “copy” in the industry.

His first point is debatable. After all, the American Jewish Committee is one of the current “Osgood Files” sponsors, although it doesn’t have the host to read its copy.

On his second point, though, Mr. Osgood is correct.

ABC Radio’s Paul Harvey weaves his sponsors’ names into his newscasts. Similarly, syndicated talkers such as Sean Hannity devote much airtime to flogging their latest books.

Commercial pitches are common in local radio work, too.

In the Washington area, anchors at WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) read ad copy, but it cannot include “superlatives,” said Jim Farley, the station’s vice president of news and programming.

An example: WTOP has rejected copy for McDonald’s that called for the anchor to read the slogan “I’m lovin’ it.”

One WTOP sportscaster, Dave Johnson, does mattress endorsements under a long-term contract that existed before Mr. Farley arrived in 1996. When the deal ends, so will the endorsements, Mr. Farley said.

At WMAL (630 AM), anchors are required only to read the name of a newscast’s sponsor, said Randall Bloomquist, the news-and-talk station’s program director.

WMAL talkers are allowed to endorse, but “talk-show hosts are not journalists,” Mr. Bloomquist said.

At a time when journalism is plagued by ethics scandals, news people aren’t helping matters by trading on their credibility through commercials, said Scott M. Libin, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Why blur the line further?” Mr. Libin said. “When a journalist provides me with news and information, I want to know it’s because it’s in my best interest, not because somebody wrote a check.”

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

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