< World Business Review


Saturday, February 23, 2002

World Business Review

February 23, 2002

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It shows up on public broadcasting stations, it trumpets its connections with famous universities, and its hosts are world-famous former top government officials. But the twice-a-week program titled World Business Review is not the newsmagazine it claims to be. In fact, in a media world where the lines between advertising and programming are increasingly blurred, World Business Review has more than once had to defend against journalistic questions about whether it is really a "program" at all. Bob wondered, too, and after nine months of poking around, concluded that what amounts to a 30-minute commercial may well be running on a public TV station near you.

ALEXANDER HAIG: Welcome to World Business Review, I'm Alexander Haig. Our next topic involves solutions in the field of electronic messaging. Here for this discussion is Bill Long, chairman and CEO of ECBridges.

BOB GARFIELD: Yes, that's the Al Haig, former secretary of state, former White House Chief of Staff, retired 4-star general and, lately, it would appear, inquiring TV journalist. Following in the footsteps of fellow Reagan Administration appointee Caspar Weinberger, Haig is the host of World Business Review, which boasts that it is award-winning educational fare. Here's the general in a typically hard-hitting WBR interview:

ALEXANDER HAIG: Now Jim, how does an EDI Solution enhance a company's ROI?

JIM: Tremendously. Because you have the ability…

BOB GARFIELD: Still, according to its producers, Florida's Multi-Media Productions, WBR reaches approximately 50 million American homes. There's an asterisk next to the 50 million homes figure, and if you look farther you see the figure qualified as "potential." That means WBR shows up, at some point during the broadcast week, on one or another channels which are available, cumulatively, in 50 million households. It doesn't mean gigantic audiences are tuning in. Common practice. Small matter. But the more you dig into World Business Review, you realize that its promotional materials could use a whole lot more asterisks. Take, for instance, the claim that …

VOICE-OVER: The following colleges and universities offer World Business Review as a course, course supplement, or through their library systems.

BOB GARFIELD: Under the headline about a "full semester curriculum" developed by Indiana State University's Professor Gerald Cockrell, WBR's website recently listed 40 institutions of higher education employing the show for educational purposes. Well, yes and no.

JIM GRAY: They don't really have a connection with Duke University like they claim.

BOB GARFIELD: Jim Gray is Associate Dean of Fuqua School of Business at Duke University

JIM GRAY: We saw World Business Review's use of our logo and name as unauthorized exploitation of our brand. When we found out what they were doing, we asked them in no uncertain terms to cease and desist. What they did was they sent unsolicited -- sent us tapes, and was pretty savvy in getting us to sign an acceptance of those tapes, which merely said, "Yes, we'll take the tapes, and we'll put them in our library." And nobody ever checks those out, that's for sure, and we've stopped having them in our library.

BOB GARFIELD: Shortly after we began making inquiries, Duke's name was pulled off of WBR's website. But 39 others remained. Among them, we located 12 institutions where a professor or two keep the tapes in classrooms as supplemental materials. One of them is Indiana State's Professor Cockrell, who is on WBR's advisory board. Cockrell told us he likes how WBR stays on the cutting edge of technology long after traditional texts become outdated. But, according to university spokeswoman Theresa Exline, even he doesn't use the tapes as a formal part of the curriculum.

THERESA EXLINE: He's not using this as curriculum either. He uses the videos in his classroom to supplement a full-fledged curriculum.

BOB GARFIELD: Several universities told us the tapes are seldom, if ever, checked out, but the producers are keen to keep them stacked on library shelves. An official at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh told us that when they tried to unsubscribe from WBR they didn't even get return phone calls. Maybe that's because WBR thrives on a delicately balanced ecosystem of borrowed prestige, in which the appearance of broad university affiliations, General's Haig's international stature, and public television's mission are inextricably linked. But if the college-connection is problematic, the public TV one is even more so.

STAN MARVIN: They have a very slick operation.

BOB GARFIELD: Stan Marvin is Program Director at KRCB-TV, a PBS affiliate north of San Francisco.

STAN MARVIN: And I was a little wowed by the fact that, gee, we could have these guys on our TV station -- woo hoo! It doesn't cost us anything, uh, to have Caspar Weinberger or Alexander Haig emcee a program, or host a program, on our station.

BOB GARFIELD: KRCB no longer carries the program. The decision to drop it came after Stan Marvin became suspicious by just how un-Mike Wallace-like General Haig's questioning was. He says he telephoned his WBR contact and asked her to disclose the relationship between the interviewers and the interviewees.

STAN MARVIN: She didn't want to tell me everything, and I asked straight on, do the people that I'm watching on your program pay to be on your program? Because that's a no-no. And she didn't answer me. She sort of just danced around the question. And that was enough for me.

BOB GARFIELD: That's because, according to the FCC, public stations are prohibited by the amended Communications Act of 1934 from carrying advertising for for-profit entities. But when KRCB's traffic manager tried to cancel the show, Marvin says….

STAN MARVIN: She got extremely irate with him, and threatened all kinds of things. "Don't mess with the general." That's the quote.

BOB GARFIELD: As it turns out, WBR story subjects are almost always paying customers. They pay a so-called underwriting fee for their companies to be featured -- a fee up to $50,000 -- to WBR's advisory board called the Alliance for Technology Education. More on the Alliance shortly. But anytime an interview subject is paying anything to appear, the relationship ceases to be journalism -- which may explain questions like this:

AL HAIG: Dennis, how difficult is it for a merchant to set up a contactless smart card reader? Is it expensive?

DENNIS RYAN: No, the readers are actually a few hundred dollars, so the price is not prohibitive…

BOB GARFIELD: Dennis Ryan is president of Amatech, whose feature on World Business Review included not only friendly questions from General Haig, but also testimonials from a satisfied Amatech customer. All in all, to use Ryan's phrase, "good bang for the buck."

DENNIS RYAN: It was not blatant advertising for Amatech. They actually asked some questions that we didn't give them. So from that standpoint they did get spontaneity.

BOB GARFIELD: They weren't argumentative questions?

DENNIS RYAN: Absolutely not.

BOB GARFIELD: The producers of World Business Review repeatedly declined to make General Haig or anyone else from the organization available to be interviewed on tape, but CEO and executive producer Thomas Clynes sent correspondence arguing that appearance fees are just a means of "creative financing" for a worthwhile program, that the producers retain editorial control and that the shows have clear disclaimers disclosing a financial relationship with the companies being profiled. That disclaimer -- which describes the sponsorships as "funding of production costs" -- is onscreen in the final credits for 8 to 12 seconds. In actuality, most of the stations we contacted, including a Hillsborough County, Florida cable-access outlet grandly called The Education Channel, expressed surprise at the financial relationship. Lucy Griggs is the Program Director at the Education Channel.

LUCY GRIGGS: No, I didn't realize that it was actually a fee that they had to pay to be on. Their website shows -- and their credits, I think, too -- that they have sponsorships from businesses, but it's not elucidated.

BOB GARFIELD: That financial relationship is further clouded by that other entity: The Alliance for Technology Education. According to those we interviewed, clients who appear on WBR pay their appearance fees not to the production company, but to the Alliance, which in turn "underwrites" the overall series. According to Larry Holden, who at the time was Program Director at WSBE in Providence RI., this layer of separation was created in 1997, following objections from stations about the direct funding. In his phrasing, the Alliance is a slush fund.

LARRY HOLDEN: They established a fund, and corporations and other funders would be able to contribute to the fund, but were not dictating or paying for the individual programs that might have a particular executive of a particular company appearing on the program. So there was a layer of isolation.

BOB GARFIELD: That layer cleanses not only client fees coming in, but also money going out. FCC rules prohibit public stations from selling their airtime, but the Alliance has bestowed grants to "underwrite" WBR on at least 7 of the public-TV stations. The Alliance for Technology Education may have a non-profit-sounding name, but it is registered with the Florida Secretary of State as a for-profit corporation, listing World Business Review boss Thomas Clynes as principal officer. Station executive


LARRY HOLDEN: Neither of us were born yesterday. I think that they believe that this would help the station continue to broadcast the program. [SOUND from infomercial for "The Juiceman"]

BOB GARFIELD: Infomercials have their rightful place in the commercial-television food chain, so long as there is no misdirection about what's going on. World Business Review airs on PBS stations amid all sorts of misdirection -- for the stations, for the universities whose names and logos it bandies about, and most of all -- no matter how cleverly the elements are arranged and obscured -- for the public. The public, then, might be wondering about the producers' boast that WBR is an "award-winning program." That it is. It has won what it calls the "coveted" Telly and Aegis awards… both heavily geared toward commercials and corporate video production. Among the other honorees when WBR received its trophies: the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association and West Valley High School.