Watching NBC tonight, I've just seen an impressive new low in journalistic integrity.
I was checking out the NBC show "Surface," a guilty pleasure. On tonight's episode, two characters, Rich and Laura, are trying to spread word that they've discovered a sea monster. They show a videotape of the monster to a reporter who works at what appears to be an NBC affiliate in San Francisco.
Not only can we put this on the air, the reporter declares, we can put it on our website. Rich and Laura say they've already uploaded it to the web. "But have you posted it on MSNBC.com?" the reporter says breathlessly. Rich and Laura are instantly won over.
(NBC, of course, owns MSNBC and partners with Microsoft in MSNBC.com.)
After the reporter interviews Laura, the entire segment is aired on -- you guessed it -- "Countdown with Keith Olberman," on MSNBC. Olberman introduces the segment and closes it. We hear lots of his show's music, and then, for no apparent reason, the theme from NBC Nightly News. It's an eight-minute ad for an NBC news show tucked jarringly into the middle of a program produced by the entertainment division.
Meanwhile, MSNBC has returned the favor by plugging "Surface": Back in September, Joe Scarborough introduced videotape of a giant squid by saying, "It's an underwater sea monster straight from the TV show 'Surface.'"
And over on MSNBC.com, there's this rapturous essay, posted December 30th, on how the monster from "Surface" is the "show's breakout character."
(Which is hilariously untrue, incidentally. Have you ever heard anyone talking about the monsters from 'Surface'? Me neither.)
Nonetheless, MSNBC.com contributor Brian Bellmont, identified only as "a writer in Minneapolis," just loves "Surface." He writes: "What makes 'Surface' different from some of the other monster-of-the-week stories that have haunted the airwaves is its singular focus.... Unlike the recently cancelled 'Threshold,' Lake Bell isn't taking detours to little towns to investigate strange stuff only marginally connected to the monsters....."
Threshold, by the way, happened to be on CBS.
Bellmont happily notes that Surface has been picked up for another season, which means that "we'll likely see plenty more opportunities for Bell to strip down to her skivvies...."
A first-time novelist, Bellmont is described on his publisher's website as a "freelance writer and public relations consultant" -- a combination which most news organizations would find compromising -- who has "written everything from restaurant reviews to product packaging copy."
MSNBC.com omits that part of Bellmont's bio.
It also omits the fact that on Bellmont's own website he lists among his recent clients the Canadian Peat Moss Association, the Minnesota Building Trades, and, um, Microsoft. Writing articles for MSNBC.com while doing PR for Microsoft is a pretty big journalistic no-no, whether the articles are about politics, business or entertainment.
The debate about whether appearing in entertainment programs or movies diminishes a news organization's credibility has been going on for a few years now -- I remember it dating back at least to CNN's role in the movie "Contact" back in 1997.
But NBC doesn't seem to care whether MSNBC and MSNBC.com have any credibility. They just want you to watch the sagging cable channel and visit the website. Whether you trust what you see and read -- they'll worry about that later.