Monthly Archives: February 2008

Jarvik and Clemens head to the bench

I’ve written previously about Robert Jarvik and Roger Clemens. Both were back in the news this week – for the wrong reasons.

Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor, the world’s best-selling drug according to The New York Times, had been featuring Dr. Jarvik in its print and TV commercials. The problem. The ads were deceptive. Here’s what The Times said in an editorial Wednesday: Lipitor’s Pitchman Gets the Boot.

The trouble was, its very first TV commercial with Dr. Jarvik was downright deceptive. It suggested that he was rowing a racing shell across a mountain lake when he was not, in fact, rowing. A stunt double was at the oars. And while the commercials have Dr. Jarvik enthusing over Lipitor “as a doctor and a dad,” he is actually an inventor and researcher. He has a medical degree, but did not go through residency training and is not licensed to practice medicine or prescribe drugs.

So under pressure from the House Energy and Commerce Committee Pfizer has stopped the ads. If I were reporting – instead of blogging – here are three questions I would ask a Pfizer spokesperson.

Did you know the ads were deceptive? If so, why did you decide to use the ads? If not, did you fire the advertising agency that apparently had a large role in this debacle?

One of the reasons I’m interested in this situation is because we talk about advertising in my ethics class at Kent State. The view of most of the advertising students is this. The primary goal is to produce compelling advertising. If an ad steps over the line and becomes deceptive – well there is always the government ready to come and take action? Wouldn’t it be easier just to do the ethically right thing and not be deceptive in the first place? I guess I don’t understand advertising.

So here’s where we get to with all this. Again from the editorial in The Times.

Pfizer has been relying on the reputation of Dr. Robert Jarvik, one of the pioneers in designing artificial hearts, to bolster sales of Lipitor, its cholesterol-lowering drug. Now that a Congressional committee is investigating the credibility of those ads, the company has dropped Dr. Jarvik as its pitchman. It was a telling reminder that consumers, besieged by drug promotion ads on television and in print media, need to take what they see, hear and read with a very large grain of skepticism.


And then there’s Roger Clemens.

When confronted with a “crisis,” the common public relations advice is to gain control of the story and get your position out quickly and aggressively. That’s the position Clemens took when he was linked by the Mitchell Report to the apparently widespread use of steroids in major league baseball.

Better add this to the public relations crisis management strategy: Make sure you are telling the truth.

I don’t know whether Clemens is telling the truth or not. But based on his testimony before a House committee a few weeks ago I guess we’ll find out. The matter has now been turned over to the Department of Justice to take a look at whether Clemens lied under oath. Might need to send in a relief pitcher here. Or at least another attorney.

In the meantime, others are having plenty to say about Clemens. Here’s Murray Chass, Chipping at Clemens’s Credibility, Piece by Piece:

Call this the crumbling case of Roger Clemens.

Piece by piece, item by item, his defense, his alibis, his excuses are crumbling, and soon he will be left with only his bare, unbelievable denials. He will be Pete Rose redux.

Gee. Truth. Deception. Credibility. Trust. Sounds a lot like what we talk about in our ethics classes.


The Terrible Towel

images.jpegThe Terrible Towel flies at half-mast today. Myron Cope, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers radio broadcaster, died in Pittsburgh Wednesday. He was 74.

Cope was the voice of the Steeler Nation — through five Super Bowl championships beginning in the early 1970s.  He helped raise millions of dollars for charities  through  licensing  and other promotions involving the  Terrible Towel. And he did more to create  community pride than any  economic development organization ever could.

I really haven’t lived in Pittsburgh for 40 years. I visit my parents and my brothers and their families occassionally. But I’ve maintained a fond link to the Steel City mostly by way of the Steelers. I can’t name more than five players on the team these days. But I remember going with my friend and Kent State roommate, Tom Kollar, to the last pro football game at Pitt Stadium (1969), the first at Three Rivers Stadium (1970) and many more in the years following. I remember the Immaculate Reception. And I remember many pre-game visits to the Shamrock Inn on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

I also still have the original Terrible Towel. I used to bring it out for playoff games. But it gave the Steelers too much of an advantage. So in fairness to the people who really care about professional football these days I quit doing that. I’ll bring it out of the closet this weekend; I don’t think it will have any effect on the presidential primary in Ohio. But if it does, well…

So Myron Cope — thank you for all the great memories. And if there is a press box in heaven (or even in Northeast Idaho which is pretty close to heaven) I’m sure you’ll be sitting there today next to Bob Prince. The voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates — and the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Couldn’t get much better than that.

John McCain and The New York Times

No point rehashing the John McCain/New York Times story here. There have been plenty of excellent commentaries, including one by Jay Rosen and another by Jeff Jarvis.

But I am going to look at this story this week in my ethics class at Kent State. It provides a timely example of at least two issues: the use of anonymous sources and fairness.

It also provides an example of crisis management. McCain obviously knew the story was in the works. He attacked it quickly and aggressively. And in the absence of facts that would point to an improper relationship between the senator and a female lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, McCain’s position appears to be credible. I guess we’ll see.

Here’s my quick take:

As I read the story, it appeared to me that the Times had a decent story that focused on McCain’s character and ethics, although most of it was old news. But that story came packaged in a wrapper that shouted sex, lies and maybe videotape.

The article in the second paragraph says:

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

OK. McCain and Iseman deny in the story having a romantic relationship. So we’ll just have to take the word of The Times on this one. I’m not so sure the public is that trusting these days. I’m not. Couldn’t have been that many advisers in McCain’s campaign eight years ago. Any chance there may be some axe grinding this time around? Or any chance that The Times hyped the story with the wrong lead? If so, fair to McCain? Hardly.

Clark Hoyt, the public editor at The Times, has some reservations as well.

But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller [Executive Editor Bill Keller] why he decided to run what he had.

“If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

And, amazingly, the article in the long run will most likely help McCain. It certainly has given all the conservative radio and TV pundits an opportunity to jump to his defense.

So beyond the students in my ethics class, if you are interested in considering different perspectives on this story The Plain Dealer had two excellent columns Sunday. One by Ted Diadium. One by Connie Schultz.

Hey, if Steve Rubel can become a celebrity by mostly just linking to other stories why can’t I?

Indiana wins one

Indiana University bounced its basketball coach Kelvin Sampson Friday. Good. I don’t know Sampson. I’m not an IU basketball fan. Yet I give university president Michael McRobbie and others credit for doing the right thing.

As I wrote previously, I’m sure it was a tough decision. Yet it was the right one. Here’s why.

Sampson, twice the national coach of the year, has a history of violating NCAA rules. IU knew that. Hired him away from Oklahoma anyway. And then apparently Sampson violated the same recruiting rules at IU that got him into trouble at Oklahoma.

Sampson, according to The New York Times, had five years left on a contract that paid him a base salary of $500,000 a year. Wow. Wonder how many professors at IU make that?

But here’s the point. McRobbie and the IU administration took a stand to protect the reputation of the university. It’s tough for a university – or any organization for that matter – to value ethical conduct, integrity and character when the people at the top violate the rules. That happens in the business world all too often. And in reality Sampson was the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business. Same standards should apply to him. And others.

So now I expect some will say this presents Indiana University with a “public relations problem.” I’d argue just the opposite.  It presents an opportunity. All the IU administration needs to say is that it values people with ethics, integrity and character – and it won’t let anyone without those principles undercut the reputation of the university or diminish the value of the degrees that the students work so hard to obtain.

Hey. That’s not a bad ethics policy.

And by the way. Without Sampson IU beat Northwestern Saturday night 85-82. So it goes.

Well, I’m late. It’s almost 5:30 a.m. And I want to get on the road for my five-mile run.

Hillary Clinton and answering machines

I don’t have any luck. Hillary Clinton called me the other night. And the call went to my answering machine.images.jpg


Here’s the story. I was watching Wolf Blitzer and Jack Cafferty, reading The New York Times and enjoying a glass of wine. (OK, maybe two.) And the phone rings.

This is why Bell Labs invented Caller ID: Private.  Or Out of Area. Shame on me if I answer and become embroiled in a long conversation about the benefits of long-term health-care insurance. Or some equally uncompelling sales pitch. So three quick rings later and I’m back in the comfort zone.

Then later I check the answering machine.

“Hello. This is Hillary Clinton.” What? Good grief. I missed the chance to talk to potentially the next president of the United States. Talk about bad luck. She was reaching out to me. And I didn’t answer the phone. But even worse, the answering machine cut off her message. Any chance Hillary and Bill are going to stop over my place this weekend?  If so, I hope it’s early evening. I don’t generally do well with guests after 9 p.m.

But this morning when I was running I thought about the call from Hillary. In this day of social media,images-1.jpg here we have the use of a really traditional communication vehicle. Is a telephone call still the most effective way to reach people? Maybe. It’s direct. And while Hillary seemed to be a little rushed, it’s one-on-one communication. Although it didn’t appear that she was giving me much of a chance to join in the conversation. Probably like an executive-level blog at a large corporation.

But on campus, students have cell phones tethered to their ears. They would probably welcome the calls. At home, at least for me, I avoid calls particularly around dinnertime. I’ve reached the point where I can’t risk having to wear a blood pressure cuff to make it through the evening meal. So maybe it’s generational. If Hillary calls back I’ll ask her how effective these calls have been. To me the calls are similar to the ads you have to sit through at movie theaters these days: intrusive and irritating.  Possibly good marketing. Bad public relations. I won’t tell her that. From the look of it she has other problems.

All I know is that until March 4 I’ll go ahead and take a chance and answer at least some of the calls. Don’t want to miss Mike Huckabee. He might enjoy running the 10-mile course on South Main Street in Akron. I’ll ask him. That is always fun in late February. Blowing wind. Ice and snow on the street. Cars and trucks coming at you from all directions. Right, Walter?

images-2.jpgAnd then I came home from Kent today. Barack Obama called. He left a message on my answering machine.

I have no luck.

Photos, basketball and character

Susan Kirkman Zake talked about photojournalism to my ethics class at Kent State Monday. But what see really talked about was character.

Susan is an adjunct faculty member at Kent, and she is completing her master’s degree. In another life (as the corporate suits love to say) she managed photography, multimedia and special projects at the Akron Beacon Journal.

What’s that have to do with basketball and character? C’mon. Give me a few sentences.

Susan is an example of why people turn to journalism as a career. She’s talented. She’s passionate about journalism. And she strikes me as someone with character.

Did the students respond to her? Yes. They are a lively group in most cases anyway. But her message about photojournalism resonated with them: don’t lie, don’t distort the truth and don’t intentionally harm anyone. And do it all under deadline pressure in an environment where everyone who sees your work is a potential (likely?) critic. Pass the Rolaids.

She is uncompromising in her belief that photojournalists (all journalists for that matter) have to do “the right thing.” Not just when it is convenient or easy. But all the time. Otherwise they lose the public’s trust.

Gee. Trust and character. I respect people like Susan Kirkman Zake. IMO (practicing in case Bill Sledzik talks me into using Twitter) they are fighting an uphill battle in this day of social media and entertainment journalism – but they are advocates for what journalism was and should be. And maybe somewhere the once-young Woodwards and Bernsteins of my generation who flooded the journalism schools in the early 1970s post-Watergate are smiling. It’s not all about technology, folks. Or convergence and being proficient on all platforms – or whatever. It’s still about having a passion for informing the public, being honest and telling the truth – and having character.

OK. Now we get to basketball.

I came home after that class and began reading The New York Times. I start with the business pages…then sports…then arts…then editorials and op-eds. And there on the sports page was a column by William C. Rhoden, “Not Everyone Wants a Coaching Change at Indiana.”

Long story short. Indiana University hired Kevin Sampson two years ago to restore IU to the basketball glory days of Bobby Knight. But Sampson came to Bloomington from the University of Oklahoma with some heavy NCAA baggage. He violated some NCAA rules at Oklahoma. Now even on a tight leash at Indiana, it’s possible that he has violated earlier this season some of the same rules. Ouch.

Rhoden argues that Sampson should be given a second (third?) chance because he is a winner and can take Indiana back to the top of college basketball. I’m sure many IU alumni and others agree. The ends justify the means. Wahoooo.

So here it goes. I think Sampson should be fired, if the allegations are true. First-year IU President Michael McRobbie is expected to make a decision by the end of this week. Beyond basketball, I guess we’ll see if McRobbie has any balls.

Why? If Susan Kirkman Zake would fire a photojournalist for altering a photograph and changing the truth – shouldn’t we expect at least the same ethical standards to apply to the CEO of a multimillion-dollar basketball program. I’ll bet if an IU journalism student cheated on a test or plagiarized an article she would be out the door and fast.

Journalists have character. Otherwise they are gone. Good.

And if IU needs a basketball coach. Well, Bobby Knight may be available. He did a lot of things wrong – but apparently violating NCAA rules wasn’t one of them.

I didn’t ask Susan if she had any interest in coaching basketball.

Goodbye Akron Beacon Journal

I’m really cranky this morning. I wanted to run outside. But freezing rain greeted me at 6 a.m. So I headed for the treadmill in our bedroom. I’m sure my wife will start talking to me again sometime this afternoon.

But the freezing rain wasn’t the worst part. Four weeks ago I subscribed to the Sunday edition of The New York Times. I read The Times – the actual printed version – every day. And I figured this would save me a few minutes on Sunday mornings since the paper would be delivered along with the Akron Beacon Journal.

Wrong. After four weeks the Beacon Journal delivery guy is two for four.  Not bad in baseball. Not great when it comes to getting the paper. I can read both online virtually anytime I want, day or night.

But I love to read the print editions. Is there anything better than sitting in a comfy chair, reading The Times after work, watching Wolf Blitzer and Jack Cafferty on CNN and nursing a double gin and tonic? Hey, at my age it doesn’t get any better than that.

So I called the Beacon Journal and pleaded my case. Wouldn’t it be possible for the delivery guy to take The Times in one hand and the Beacon Journal in the other and head the 10 yards from the street to my porch? It doesn’t even require two trips. Well, the customer service person told me she would make a note of it. But if I were really unhappy about it I would probably have to call The Times and cancel delivery.

Ouch. Maybe the newspaper industry isn’t in as bad shape as I thought. OK. I’ll play along. My reply: How about if I don’t get The Times delivered next Sunday I’ll cancel both.

Goodbye Akron Beacon Journal.

I’ve been a subscriber for more than 30 years. But truthfully, I take the Beacon Journal now mostly out of habit, not because there is much worth reading in it. My uninformed opinion is that some poor management and lack of corporate support over the last few years have crippled the paper’s ability to be much more than an OK local newspaper, if that.  I can scan the headlines online – and I can head to Starbucks Sunday morning and get The Times.

But thinking about that, I wonder if newspapers like the Akron Beacon Journal are working toward the day when there are no print editions. If newspapers lose people like me (and I probably won’t be around forever in any event) who is going to read the print editions? Not the generation that is in high school and college today. They haven’t developed the habit. They won’t either.

Oh well. I started in the newspaper business delivering copies of The Pittsburgh Press after school. I placed a printed copy on almost every home in the neighborhood, seven days a week. The Pittsburgh Press is gone now. Too bad. I bet there is a kid somewhere in Pittsburgh who could deliver a copy of that paper and The New York Times at the same time. Of course, that’s if anybody still wanted either.