The skinny on damage control

A well-placed Web site stole the thunder of a "20/20" exposi.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A famous screen diva of Hollywood's Golden Age once remarked, "I don't want to see the director's cut of anything." The mot is often used to capture the division between the old studio system and the brave new auteur world. Imagine, though, if you had to see the raw footage of every news program on television -- each unedited version of every "hard-hitting" interview on all the "60 Minutes" clones that clog the airwaves. Would it make for better, more responsible journalism, or simply deny each story its focus and its point of view, not to mention any entertainment value?

ABC's "20/20" aired a report Friday night on a company called Metabolife International Inc., manufacturers of the phenomenally successful weight-loss pill that bears its name. The show questioned the herbal supplement's claim to safety and the past of the company's founder and CEO, Michael Ellis.

But before the program had even begun, Ellis struck first. A Metabolife commercial ran seconds before the segment. The no-frills spot -- white letters on a black background -- was jarring in its simplicity, like those mature-content warnings ABC provides before "NYPD Blue" (for those who live in fear of seeing Dennis Franz's ass). The ad both promoted the program and attempted to steal its thunder. "Watch the 20/20 report," said the ad, "and then sign onto the Web site."

There the curious could find a video and transcript of the full interview "20/20" reporter Arnold Diaz did with Ellis. Given the history of TV newsweeklies, Metabolife was expecting the worst: interview snippets taken out of context; glaring contradictions in research; footage of weeping, dissatisfied customers complaining of disastrous side effects. In a first-strike move that set ABC back on its heels, Metabolife and its damage-control publicist Michael Sitrick had put the interview online saying, Let the people decide. If the people cared to.

"Tonight we have a story that's causing all kinds of talk," Barbara Walters said in setting up the segment -- talk amongst journalists, that is. (ABC News VP Shelby Coffey set the tone when he told the New York Times, "We don't want other people attempting to get into and shift the journalism process.")

What if every individual and organization interviewed by the numerous TV news magazines took the same tack? Would it influence the interviews or reports? Would it defang the programs' supposedly ferocious investigative reporters? Or would it have no effect at all, as people became familiar with the tedious process reporters go through to obtain a good quote or two?

If Metabolife's site is any indicator, it might bore viewers to death first. Though the company claims more than a million visitors to the site in the first 24 hours alone, it's hard to imagine they stayed long. Due to the rather onerous language of the "user's agreement" I accepted to log onto the site ("Unless and to the extent otherwise expressly permitted in writing by Metabolife International, Inc., and regardless of the nature of your private activity, you will not access or use, or permit others to access or use, this website for (1) print, video or audio publication, broadcast, retransmission or any new media use," etc.), I can only paraphrase the full interview. You can watch it yourself in a variety of formats, or read the transcript (which features more footnotes than a David Foster Wallace story); you can even watch Metabolife's own edited version, containing some of the same highlights as the "20/20" show. (I'm waiting for the photo-novel.) Suffice it to say you can look at and judge the interview for yourself without any interference from media types like me. Which, as Metabolife publicist Sitrick will tell you, is the whole idea.

The 70-minute interview Diaz conducted with Metabolife's Ellis was represented by a total of three minutes of footage on Friday night's program -- a not-unusual ratio for reports of this nature. The full-length encounter is contentious, yes ("This was more like a deposition," Ellis told Newsweek), but also rambling and disorganized. If Diaz came in loaded for bear, he was packing the wrong buckshot.

The most damning bit of information -- that Ellis had been arrested in 1990 for conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine -- made it into the "20/20" report, but so did at least some of his mea culpa. (Ellis pled guilty to a lesser charge and claims his involvement was due to his fealty to a friend -- a friend who ended up on the board of Metabolife as well.)

This was the hottest stuff of the episode. Two doctors who worked on studies of Metabolife claim that their findings were misrepresented; another woman is suing the company, claiming Metabolife 356, as the product is known, gave her seizures and cost her the use of her legs. (The active ingredients in Metabolife are caffeine and ma huang, a Chinese herb that contains ephedrine. Ephedrine has some potentially dangerous side effects, according to many studies.)

That suit is still pending. It's discounted by Metabolife, which points to its millions of satisfied customers (22 million bottles sold this year alone). Diaz interviewed some doctors who claimed that their studies were misrepresented by Metabolife. Another downplayed the product's risks. (Though even he said, "Larger studies would be needed" to guarantee its safety.) So after a report that in some ways lived up to the worst of the company's expectations -- hospitalized victim, angry doctors and file footage of longhairs being busted for cooking speed in suburbia -- the report ended with something of a whimper.

"See a doctor first, before you take it," Diaz told Walters at the report's conclusion -- advice that could apply to everything from aspirin to acid. Maybe Metabolife's decision to put the unedited interview online (which Diaz called an "extraordinary and unprecedented move") had no effect on his final report. (He did not return my calls.) But it probably didn't hurt -- which brings us back to the question of advance publicity's effect on the news.

Michael Sitrick, the publicist behind the decision to put the interview on the Web, is no stranger to advance jobs or spin control. His past clients have included Food Lion (the supermarket chain that ABC's "Primetime Live" infiltrated in 1992 and filmed handling meat in a deceptive and disgusting manner) and "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer (whose history of drug, drink and law problems has provided endless fodder for the tabloids).

His varied successes have made him the go-to man on career rehab questions; when celebrities (Marv Albert, O.J. Simpson) and even cities (Los Angeles) suffer in the appearances department, journalists call Sitrick and ask him what he would do. A former journalist himself (he was a stringer for some newspapers before
going over to what many in the Fourth Estate
consider the Dark Side), he savors his reputation as a spinmeister and even wrote a book touting his wisdom on the subject ("Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage," written with partner Allan Mayer, a former Newsweek editor).

"Journalists are herd animals, and so it doesn't take a lot to whip them up into a full-tilt stampede," he wrote in his manifesto. "[A] contrarian reporter [one who follows something other than the conventional wisdom on a story] is the 'lead steer.' To be sure, not just anyone in the press corps can play the role. It's got to be a journalist who enjoys the respect of his or her peers -- or at least works for a news organization that does.

"That's because the lead steer's real audience is not so much the folks at home as it is his or her colleagues in the press room. The idea is not to change public attitudes in one fell swoop (that not really being possible) but to influence future coverage."

Some reporters, naturally, are wary of talking to Sitrick about his clients for the same reason companies (often those going into Chapter 11) and celebrities flock to him: He has the ability to control the ball, and sometimes even change the rules. The genius of Food Lion's 1997 suit against ABC, on which Sitrick played an advisory role, is that ABC became the perceived villain. The charges of mishandling food weren't challenged; rather, the supermarket chain charged the network with fraud and trespass. Those reporters didn't want jobs, they just wanted footage of employees doing nasty things with chicken parts. The fact that the jury (in Greensboro, N.C.) decided in favor of the company (awarding Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages) was a triumph of spin. And a chilling indicator of the public's distrust of the media. (The decision was
ultimately reversed in a federal appeals court.)

As the TV newsweeklies have proliferated, with some programs appearing two and three times a week, the amount of sensationalistic reporting -- hidden cameras, "gotcha" interviews -- has also grown. Sitrick and Company (named Crisis Management Firm of the Year by Inside PR magazine in 1997) does not believe in screaming denunciations of accusations, or feigned incredulity. (Think of Nate Thurm, Martin Short's parody of a "60 Minutes" victim, looking at the camera and asking the audience: "Is it me or is it him?" Not very convincing.) He and his staff (experienced journalists and lawyers among them) are the equivalent of Clinton's pre-election "war room," though more Stephanopolous than Carville. "Public relations is a business of subtleties," Sitrick said in an interview. "Sometimes it's tone of voice. Sometimes it's the way you approach it. And it's basically credibility -- we'll never lie to a reporter. And we won't allow our clients to lie, because all we have is our credibility."

Indeed, Metabolife's Ellis comes off as painfully honest in the unedited "20/20" interview. But Sitrick isn't advocating pure, unadulterated access, either. He wants his clients to share control of the dialogue with the press, whether the press likes it or not. Kathie Lee Gifford (represented by PR titan Howard Rubinstein) is no stranger to controversy. She's reportedly said she won't sit for magazine interviews anymore, claiming
that reporters have distorted what she has said. She'll only do live TV, according to her handlers, because she can control how she comes across. But for talk-show host and CEO alike, there is no easy way to dodge tough questions of a personal (marital problems?) or public (sweatshop questions?) nature without coming off looking like kind of a toad.

And Sitrick knows from toads. In 1996 he handled the El Torito restaurant chain in Southern California. One of its customers claimed he chomped into a taco and bit off the head of a frog. "El Torito was panicked when they called us up," Sitrick recalled later. "I said, 'What do you know about this guy?' They did a database search and found that he had been convicted of credit-card fraud, and he had filed for personal bankruptcy. We had the frog tested at a university and they found there weren't teeth marks in it, and the head was still part of it.

"The first thing we did is, we found out if it could possibly be true. We grilled the people at the company the way a reporter would if they had access. Then we looked at the guy's background. Then we had the frog inspected by an expert. If the guy had really been good, he would have really put the frog in his mouth and bit down on it, but he didn't do that. By disproving it, and showing why it couldn't have happened -- and then the media found his ex-girlfriend, who said he had always been planning to get a lot of money by planting a frog in a restaurant -- the thing went away like that."

Metabolife's problems are a bit more serious than one dead frog. And it's too soon to tell if putting the "20/20" interview on the Web won the company any friends. A visit to the "20/20" chat room found opinion running in its favor. (Though it's hard to say who's logging on; the "20/20" interview was held in a high school auditorium packed with Metabolife employees who cheered as if at a pep rally.) But it's the sort of move we should come to expect from publicity-savvy companies armed with the same tools of communication -- and often bigger budgets -- as the networks and news organizations.

And it is more than their right (or their client's right) to defend themselves. The over-hyped, more-sizzle-than-steak nature of many TV "investigations" warrants more checks and balances. The reporter's responsibility to be fair and accurate is offset by the sponsor's need for eyeballs. ("Metabolife: Who Knows?" isn't much of a teaser.) And the viewer has his own responsibility: to watch each report with a skeptical eye, bullshit detector at hand.

Though I'd still be careful biting into that taco.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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