There was a good piece on 60 Minutes last week about undercover or "stealth" marketing. The segment showed how marketers plant paid actors or hip young shills in coffee shops, bars, and Internet chat rooms to subtly tout video-game accessories, cigarettes, vodka, or new movies and create a buzz about the product.
Some of the people interviewed afterward by CBS correspondent Morley Safer said the pitch was so low-key that they didn't even know they were being pitched.
As marketing goes, so goes the news business. The corruption of news occurs not by a few sweeping decisions but by a lot of little ones. Two cases in point:
Two weeks ago MATA announced at a press conference that it had saved taxpayers $19 million by building a trolley link from downtown to the corner of Madison and Cleveland in Midtown for $55 million instead of the budgeted $74 million. Will Hudson, president and general manager of MATA, credited the "savings" to "good contracts" even though the project still lacks station shelters and overhead power lines.
The daily newspaper and all of the local television stations bit on the story and gave it prominent play. All agreed that the "savings" was the news. Not one of them took a closer look at the project to see whether the trolley extension is warranted at all or whether the savings could have been much greater.
In fact, at least part of the project appears to be wasteful. This is the first stage of a proposed light-rail line from downtown to the airport. Two routes have been studied. One would go through Overton Square and the Cooper-Young District and along Airways. The other would turn south at Pauline and follow Lamar to Airways.
Due to objections from Midtown businesses, MATA now leans toward the Lamar route. In that case, extending the line along Madison beyond Pauline was unnecessary, especially the costly bridgework over Interstate 240. Instead of linking downtown to an entertainment district in Overton Square, the new line simply ends in a Midtown no-man's-land just east of Stewart Brothers Hardware Store. Need a box of nails, Downtowners? MATA has got you covered.
The savings pitch is supposed to make MATA look like a lean, mean machine as it ponders the much longer extension to the airport, which could cost as much as $400 million. The project was conceived when the federal government picked up 80 percent of the tab, but these days, according to MATA's planning director Tom Fox, the competition is tougher, dollars are scarce, and the federal match (if you get it) is more like 50 percent. That would leave local and state taxpayers on the hook for $200 million plus operating deficits.
It would have taken no more than 30 seconds of television time or four column inches of type for the mainstream media to have pointed this out, to film an empty trolley (several of them pass the Flyer's office every hour), or to examine the relative merits of buses. But all were blinded by the trolley "savings." That's a nice piece of stealth public relations by MATA and its press agents.
The second stealth story was fairly obvious and probably harmless but still worth noting. On Tuesday, the National Civil Rights Museum honored former President Bill Clinton and former Memphis NAACP leader Maxine Smith with its 2003 Freedom Awards.
This annual event, while surely less partisan than the recent fat-cat Memphis fund-raiser for Vice President Dick Cheney, is essentially a Democratic Party pep rally. Previous recipients of the award include former President Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford and George Bush need not hold their breath. The event sponsors are free to call the $50,000 they gave Clinton an "award" or anything else, but journalists should call it what it is: an appearance fee. Clinton lives large and has big bills. Does anyone think he would have come for free?
Maxine Smith is a giant in post-World War II Memphis history, but like all such people, a complex and controversial one. Armed with an elite college education, she could have chosen the comfortable life of a society lady. Instead, she plunged into the raging controversies over civil rights and school desegregation.
The desegregation of the city schools, beginning with 13 brave black children in 1961, is more accurately described 42 years later as desegregation and resegregation. The busing policy advocated by Smith, the federal court, and the NAACP drove more than 28,000 white students -- some racist, some not -- from the system in 1973-74 and changed neighborhoods and growth patterns forever. A well-deserved toast to Maxine Smith, but her legacy is more complex than the banquet coverage would have you think.
The late great Commercial Appeal editor Mike Grehl used to tell reporters to beware of stories that walk in the door. Updating that maxim to include faxes, e-mails, and phone calls -- that's some advice well worth $50,000.