The Ultimate Product Placement
With the whole world watching, more than a dozen CBS correspondents covering the Winter Olympics in Ogano, Japan, have appeared on the air wearing apparel prominently adorned with the Nike "swoosh" symbol. Spontaneous conversion? Not quite. This sartorial synchronicity is the result of a contractual agreement between CBS and the Nike Corporation, reports Medea Benjamin, co-director of the human rights advocacy group Global Exchange. According to Benjamin, CBS corespondents refusing to wear the Nike apparel have been ordered by CBS brass to button up -- or else. The journalistic profession earned some pretty low ratings in the recent past, most notably for its questionable coverage of the O.J. trial, the death of Princess Diana, and the current Washington soap, Lewinskygate. But this recent sellout has prompted a powerful coalition of independent journalists and organizations -- including former Washington Post Ombudsman Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Sydney Schanberg, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and others -- to take the CBS network to task for what they point to as a disturbing transgression of journalistic ethics. It's no surprise that Nike would try such shameless hucksterism. Indeed, a Nike spokesperson admitted outright to the Washington Post that Nike gave free jackets "in exchange for commercial air time" on CBS, and that the correspondents' use of them "helps us build awareness about our products." But for CBS to actually carry it through is outrageous. What's next -- Dan Rather wearing an EXXON cap while reporting the next Valdez incident, a can of Bud on his desk? Lesley Stahl hosting her 60 Minutes segment on eating disorders and sipping from a can of Slimfast? As most everyone knows, this is more than a story about sports. Detailed reports on Nike's overseas manufacturing operations in Indonesia, Vietnam and China -- reports done by responsible journalists and independent monitors -- have described work conditions and salaries as akin to turn-of-the-last-century sweatshops. To its credit, CBS News correspondents have done some of this reporting. But by wearing the Nike symbol while reporting on the most important sporting event in the world, CBS correspondents are not only implicitly endorsing Nike in front of billions of viewers, they're degrading their profession as well. The Society of Professional Journalists has adopted a simple Code of Ethics for this kind of behavior. It calls upon journalists to "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two." In addition, the code states that journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and should "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility."How far the mighty have fallen. The network's "48 Hours" was the first network show to report the Nike sweatshop story, in October 1996. Nike, a major television advertiser, complained bitterly to CBS about that story. Since then, the network has not done any significant follow-up, despite developments reported elsewhere. Moreoever, CBS is reported to have canceled a summer re-run of an updated version of the original sweatshop piece, said to have been scheduled for July 1997. Now, with CBS correspondents wearing the Nike symbol on their jackets and hats, you probably shouldn't expect an in-depth CBS update of Nike's overseas exploits. The increasing conglomerization of the news business has brought corporate and journalistic interests much too close for comfort. But dressing up reporters in the regalia of corporate sponsors should be one step obviously too far. CBS and all media outlets should adopt a policy that explicitly prevents the use of journalists as advertising billboards. Jeff Gillenkirk is a writer based San Francisco. Research and additional writing were provided by Tony Newman. For more information contact Medea Benjamin, Co-Director of Global Exchange, 415-255-7296.