On Sunday, February 18, a little after the usual car-fire, cat-stuck-in-a-tree 11:00 p.m. newscast, KOMO anchor Kathi Goertzen delivered the televised health message of the evening: A new study by Cornell University shows that apples help prevent colon cancer. Two days later, on Tuesday, February 20, Goertzen repeated her performance, but with a slight twist: A new study, this time by the University of California at Davis, shows that apples help lower cholesterol. Cool. The problem is that both studies were funded by the apple industry, and KOMO didn't bother to mention it. Sure, it's TV news, and generally understood to be crap. But KOMO's recent lapse was over the top, even by TV news standards.

Here's what's up with KOMO. First, KOMO failed to mention that the studies promoting apples' health benefits were funded by the New York Apple Association and the U.S. Apple Association. Both groups are multimillion-dollar lobbying organizations dedicated to increasing apple consumption. Second, the Cornell study, which was the focus of the February 18 broadcast, is not even news--it was published over a year ago. Furthermore, KOMO already broadcast a story about it! "We're short-staffed on the weekends," says a KOMO producer who wished to remain anonymous. Third, and most troubling, KOMO has a web link from the online version of its apple study broadcasts to the Washington Apple Commission, a lobbying and public relations group responsible for promoting Washington state apples. "Uh, yeah, that's a little weird," admits the KOMO producer.

So is KOMO involved in some conspiracy with the apple industry to sell more apples? Probably not. But according to John Stauber, founder of the media watchdog group PR Watch and author of the book Trust Us, We're Experts, KOMO's behavior is more likely a sad commentary on the state of television news. Besides the fast-paced environment of the broadcast newsroom and the demand it places on the editors, Stauber says TV news is increasingly reliant on stories written and produced with company or industry influence ["The Company Line," Pat Kearney, April 6, 2000]. "On any given day, 40 to 60 percent of news that we see, hear, or read comes from public relations and industry," says Stauber.

KOMO's decision to air the compromised broadcasts might not simply be an innocent accident. It's worth noting that Washington residents are currently being targeted by the Apple Commission with a huge P.R. campaign to eat more apples. To fund the new P.R. efforts, Washington state apple farmers agreed in late 1998 to increase the assessment fee (kind of like Apple Commission union dues) from 25 cents to 40 cents per box of apples. The well-funded campaign ($300 million spent thus far) is full steam ahead, says Washington Apple Commissioner Bruce Grim, and will be conducted with lessons learned from the past.

According to Grim, the new campaign is necessary to counter the negative publicity incurred when activists targeted the apple industry in the early '90s for its use of a pesticide called Alar. The apple industry is still feeling the effects and has been trying to win back consumer confidence ever since. In a 2001 letter to growers, Grim said, "Our industry was largely unprepared to deal with the kind of CBS-inspired media frenzy sparked by reports about Alar 10 years ago. While we cannot assure that such food safety issues will not spring up in the future--on the contrary they most likely will--your commissioners are determined to see that every effort is made to counter these stories with fact-based, scientific data. To that end, we have an effective and responsive communication department that deals with public relations, industry communications and crisis management."

If KOMO's recent broadcasts are any indication, Grim's "effective communication department" is doing its job. And while acting as flacks for the apple industry may not be the crime of the century, KOMO is guilty of duping its viewers to assume they're watching a newscast, not an infomercial. And KOMO's work on behalf of the apple industry raises an important question: What other industries is KOMO quietly promoting? We'd like to know the answer to that one, but KOMO did not respond to The Stranger's questions.

pat@thestranger.com

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