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Firms Paid TV's Tech Gurus To Promote Their Products

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page C01

Corey Greenberg, tech editor for NBC's "Today" show, appeared last July to praise Apple's iPod as "a great portable musical player . . . the coolest-looking one" and suggested a compatible device to "share your music with other people." "This is the way to go," he declared.

"Let's cut the Apple commercial here right now, okay?" co-host Matt Lauer interjected.

Lauer was onto something. Greenberg, an NBC contributor, confirmed yesterday that he has received payments from Apple as well as Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Seiko Epson, Creative Technology and Energizer Holdings, charging $15,000 apiece to talk up their products on news shows. The contracts were first disclosed by the Wall Street Journal.

NBC officials say they were unaware of these and similar financial relationships and have tightened their policies. But Greenberg told The Washington Post that since becoming a "Today" contributor in 2000, "I've made NBC aware of my outside work. . . . I've been aboveboard with NBC."

Asked if he owed viewers a disclosure of his corporate clients, Greenberg said: "I have never accepted payment to place a product on NBC News." As for other news shows, "I have never accepted payment to say nice things about a product in any venue." He said manufacturers hired him as "a spokesperson who could talk credibly and understandably about consumer products," but that he would no longer accept payment for appearances on local shows.

NBC would not make a senior executive available for an interview. As soon as the "senior management team" learned of the payments to contributors, said spokeswoman Allison Gollust, "we looked into the issue and subsequently updated our policies. We have strict guidelines in place governing our relationships with contributors and have made all of them aware of our policies."

The art of product placement, an increasingly popular and open practice with movie studios, has been handled quietly in television news. In the seemingly endless number of segments about the latest and greatest computers, cameras, music players and other gadgets, experts are praising products -- often on "satellite tours" of local stations -- without disclosing that the manufacturers are paying them to spread the word on the airwaves.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the morning shows should be more vigilant. "If you're trying to project to your audience that they should trust Matt and Katie or Charlie and Diane, you'd think you would take every step you could to say, 'What do I need to know about this guest? Does this guest have any conflicts of interest? Let's make sure this guy isn't getting paid by the manufacturers.' . . . This is precisely the kind of thing that erodes public trust in the media."

NBC has not severed its relationship with Greenberg and other experts who it says failed to reveal their corporate ties. "This is a way of doing business for these people," said one NBC official who declined to be identified because the network would not let executives talk to the media. "It's hard to find a contributor who doesn't have a connection to one of these things."

Greenberg, a former magazine writer, is apparently in demand as an authority on consumer products.

Since December, he has discussed Sony's ImageStation digital photo site on WNBC's "Today in New York" and Fox's "Arizona Morning"; Sony's DSC-H1 camera on "Good Day Dallas," "Today in St. Louis" and "News Daybreak" in Austin; Energizer E{+2} Lithium batteries on Fox's "Morning News at Seven" in North Carolina; Sony's Cyber-shot camera on Fox's Houston station, and Hewlett-Packard's Digital Entertainment System on "Today."

He was on "Sunday Today" last month to talk about "the coolest thing," Apple's iPhoto service for digital pictures: "All the information goes up to Apple, Apple sends you a week later this perfect beautifully bound book."

Greenberg has also appeared several times on CNBC, including "The Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo," and mentioned Apple and Creative music products in a February appearance on the network. He touted Apple's iPod Photo on CNBC's now-defunct "McEnroe."

Under network policies, which also apply to stock analysts and fund managers, Greenberg "should have disclosed the other relationships to CNBC prior to his appearances," said spokeswoman Amy Zelvin. In the future, she said, "he wouldn't be on talking about companies where he was getting some sort of payment."

James Oppenheim, technology editor for Child magazine, has also appeared on "Today" and a number of local news shows, trumpeting products made by his clients. These include Microsoft, Radio Shack, Atari, Mattel, LeapFrog Enterprises and Kodak, for a fee of $12,500 for each media tour, the Journal said.

In February, Oppenheim gushed to Al Roker on "Today" over the "very first pentop computer."

"Get out of here!" Roker said.

"And it's an educational product from LeapFrog that is absolutely amazing," Oppenheim said.

In a December spot on "Today," Oppenheim told Ann Curry about Radio Shack's Chameleon, a device for finding a lost remote control. He also said that Kodak "came out with a great idea" for uploading pictures to the company's Web site.

"Nice gift for a little child, right?" Curry said.

Child magazine said yesterday it had been unaware of the other contracts and is terminating its relationship with Oppenheim. "We view this as a breach of journalistic ethics," said Sue Geramian, a vice president at parent company Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing. "His on-air appearances have all been on behalf of his own company and not as an authorized spokesperson for Child. We still believe that those products he recommended for us are consistent with our magazine's high caliber and standards."

Oppenheim also runs JamesGames.com, where he recently praised a Microsoft computer mouse as "proof that good things come in small packages." Oppenheim, who did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment, told the Journal that corporate payments do not influence his judgment.

Television shows aren't the only ones tapping into such experts. In January, in an article on Leapfrog's Fly pentop computer, USA Today quoted Oppenheim as saying the product is "innovative, empowering and has a good chance of capturing the attention and imagination of children." He was identified only as a Child magazine editor.

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