With Christmas just a week away, every gear, gadget and gizmo company on the NASDAQ is vying for your dollars. Wondering which digital camera is best? The tech expert on your local news might be able to help. What you won't learn from these segments, however, is that some "experts" are paid by manufacturers to plug their products. WABC-TV's tech guru Sree Sreenivasan tells Bob why stations sometimes look the other way.
BOB GARFIELD: Christmas is only a week away, which means, beyond all the distractions about religion and spirituality, a bonanza for consumer electronics companies, who are merrily, joyously trying to separate you from your money. But which device to buy? Digital cameras, MP3 players, cell phones? With so many choices, it's easy to see how sociologists came up with a term like "option paralysis." But help is on the way. He's a tech expert, and he's on your local news.
MAN:: All of the computer smarts are in this pen and - [OVERTALK]
MAN:: Get out of here!
MAN:: And it's an educational product from Leapfrog- [OVERTALK]
MAN:: - that is absolutely - [OVERTALK]
WOMAN:: Gadget Guy Dave Matthews joins us now to talk about all kinds of good stuff.
SREE SREENIVASAN:: Please go to 7online.com. Look for the technology section or e-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org. [OVERTALK]
SEVERAL VOICES:: Tech guru at - [OVERTALK]
SREE SREENIVASAN:: - Sree.net.
BOB GARFIELD: What you won't learn from these segments is that some experts are paid by manufacturers to mention, favorably, of course, certain products. We can tell you at least, that the last man you heard was not on any gizmo manufacturer's payroll. He is Sree Sreenivasan, a professor in the New Media Department at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and he joins us now. Sree, welcome to On the Media.
SREE SREENIVASAN:: Delighted to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Now, we heard that little clip of you, which aired Thursday. We heard you not in your capacity as a college professor. What capacity were you in, exactly?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: I am the tech reporter for WABC-TV, which is the local ABC affiliate in New York, and I'm not an engineer, but I play one [LAUGHS] on TV, as I like to say. Basically, I report on technology. This time of the year, the biggest thing is what to get people for Christmas and, of course, Hanukkah, which is much later than in recent memory, so that means that holiday shopping season has been extended as well. So who better than a Hindu to help you out?
BOB GARFIELD: Christmas Hin-do's and Hin-don'ts. I get the idea.
SREE SREENIVASAN:: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: But you are actually an employee of WABC. They pay you to do these reports, correct?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: Correct, I am an employee of ABC, and therefore, of the Disney Corporation [LAUGHS] as well.
BOB GARFIELD: WABC is a big New York station with deep pockets, and it can afford to pay a tech expert to come on and tell me which MP3 player to buy. But other stations around the country aren't so deep-pocketed, yet they still want a tech expert. How do they do it?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: Some places have a local technology expert come in and do kind of independent analysis or expertise. Others use experts or segments that are pre-produced in other places.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I guess the key word is "independent." If he's on the payroll of a consumer electronics company or he's getting paid in swag, free plasma TVs or whatever they're compensating with, you as a viewer are not getting what you think you're getting.
SREE SREENIVASAN:: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal this year that kind of blew the lid off this thing when they pointed out that at least one and maybe other people were being paid by computer companies and other gadget-play people [LAUGHS]to kind of tout their wares on television. What I see is that a lot of local television stations have to fill the air time and don't have a way of easily doing it, and so these prepackaged segments that sometimes come as satellite tours, interview opportunities - someone says they'll come to your TV station and for your Sunday morning show will show you the 10 hottest Christmas gifts, you almost need to do nothing and you'll get a guest in-house who will talk about it - that's very appealing to some people.
BOB GARFIELD: Yet isn't it obvious to local stations that if someone's coming onto their air for free or supplying free video, that they're not doing this for the fun of it, that they're being compensated by someone and that, therefore, there's obviously going to be a conflict of interest?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: That's an interesting question. But you have to remember that in television there are people who do a lot for just the fun of it. A lot of the experts you see, a lot of the talking heads you see on television screaming at each other on those cable networks are doing it for free. It isn't always obvious that maybe someone who's coming, that they have an other agenda in addition to just the free face time. So that could have been the culture that led to this problem.
BOB GARFIELD: But stations, in their own ethics policies, aren't they required to find out what the relationship is between the so-called "expert" and the company whose products he's pitching?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: There has been a lot of attention paid to this, this year, and I think, as a result of it, people are now being asked to divulge their ties, what ties they might have. But also I want to point out that some people, for example, might have a celebrity chef come in from a local restaurant and show you how to cook a dish. That's kind of obvious that they are promoting their restaurant. That's okay. It's when the people who appear to be just gadget experts, that's where the trouble starts.
BOB GARFIELD: Do any of these PR people who you're dealing with ever communicate to you, with a sort of wink and a nudge, that if you want to keep the camera, enjoy it?
SREE SREENIVASAN:: What I do have is occasionally people will call me from some agents of big companies or representatives of big companies and ask me to host something at Las Vegas [LAUGHS] or be a spokesman for a lot of money. And there are journalists who - or tech experts, who take on these jobs of kind of showing up at a convention and playing host and kind of doing mock television reporting, interviewing the CEO for an internal webcast or something like that. I've had several of those offers and have happily turned them down.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Sree, thank you very much.
SREE SREENIVASAN:: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Sree Sreenivasan is the tech expert for WABC-TV in New York City and dean of students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]