A Chattanooga TV station is charging mayoral candidates $1,000 to be interviewed ahead of the March 2 election.
WTVC News Channel 9, Chattanooga's local Fox affiliate, sent letters to candidates late last week, offering them interviews on "This N That," a lifestyle program which runs on weekday afternoons, if they agreed to pay $1,000.
"'This N That' with News Channel 9 has an exciting opportunity I would like to share with you. 'TNT' will be offering a candid and open conversation in a relaxed environment to tell your story to our viewers. These segments will be airing on 'This N That' during the week of Feb. 15," identical letters provided to the Times Free Press by multiple candidates read.
"Each candidate will appear in a two minute and no longer than a two-and-a-half-minute interview to speak about your platform. We will provide a laid-back setting for the candidate to tell your story and will air the segment during 'This N That' on News Channel 9 during the 12:30 pm program. This opportunity will be a non-scripted conversation and allow each candidate to let our viewers know their objectives if/when they are elected as Mayor of Chattanooga," the letters from the Sinclair Broadcast Group station continue.
"The fee associated with this interview will be $1000 net. Our plan will be to pre-tape segments during the week of Feb. 8. To be able to execute this show and give our viewers the high-quality production we deliver, we will need all candidates to confirm their place no later than Feb. 5, 2021."
A politician or candidate paying to be interviewed by a news reporter would be antithetical to basic standards of journalism, even more so if paying candidates were featured to the exclusion of those who did not pay. Such standards are applied across the board at the Times Free Press and most traditional news outlets, in news and features sections. Channel 9 says the rules are different for its lifestyle show.
Channel 9 Vice President and General Manager Todd Ricke, who co-signed the letters with Executive Producer Margie Scott, told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that the charge was fair because the interviews would air on non-news programming.
"It's using the 'This N That' show, which is not a news program. All of our segments are paid segments unless they're, you know, a nonprofit or something. That show is for-profit. It's a sales show," Ricke said. "We actually cleared it with our corporate offices in Baltimore. And we explained what we were doing in a lifestyle show format. And as long as we gave every single candidate the same opportunity, then that falls under the Fair Use rules."
"We have reached out to every single candidate and also sent them a letter giving them the opportunity," Ricke added. "We've had over three [candidates agree], I don't know that count as of today."
Director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University Ken Paulson, a former attorney and journalist who has worked as the editor of USA Today and dean of MTSU's College of Media and Entertainment, said that the station's sales pitch was probably legal, but said it certainly raised ethical questions.
"What the station is doing is tacky but is not illegal. They are offering what is known as advertorial content, which means it's really an ad but looks like news," Paulson said Tuesday. "It's a very common practice, especially for noontime local news shows. In effect, they are treating mayoral candidates the same way they treat chiropractors and florists."
The proposition gave some candidates pause and spurred candidate Christopher Dahl, a local historian and activist, to post a photo of the letter on his public Facebook account, with an excerpt from the Federal Communications Commission's guidelines for equal candidate appearances as the caption.
"Except as otherwise indicated in § 73.1944, no station licensee is required to permit the use of its facilities by any legally qualified candidate for public office, but if any licensee shall permit any such candidate to use its facilities, it shall afford equal opportunities to all other candidates for that office to use such facilities. Such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast by any such candidate," the regulation reads.
Not all candidates said they received the letter.
On Tuesday, the Times Free Press got responses from eight of the 14 mayoral candidates. Seven candidates or their campaigns verified that they received the letter. One said he has not received any such offer.
"I didn't get a thing from Channel 9," Candidate Andrew McLaren said when asked late Tuesday. "I did not get that, and I think that that's very shady. They should not be doing that at all."
Even if each candidate got the same offer, Paulson said the pay-to-play offers raise questions about the station's actual news coverage under a separate FCC requirement.
"In essence, the station is offering an advertising opportunity to all the candidates. But that doesn't tell us whether they're going to cover the candidates similarly in other news coverage, and that's something you obviously want to ask them to do," Paulson added. "What would clearly be wrong is if the only coverage came in the form of paid coverage. If they covered nothing else and simply offer an advertising opportunity, the station would probably be in violation of its FCC required public service to community."
Ricke said he believes the news department will do similar interviews, but could not confirm.
"Right now, we're offering it for the 'This N That' show. We have let our news division know what we're doing. And I believe they're going to be reaching out to each candidate for a separate piece, but not in a non-scripted environment," Ricke said.
"Usually when the news interviews someone, they're the ones with the questions. 'This N That' is a sales program, so it's really their platform to say what they would like to say."
While several mayoral candidates have been covered on Channel 9, some candidates had not yet been named in a single story on their website, as of Tuesday.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.