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CNN's Last Picture Show

As 'Contact' Appearances Draw Fire, Network Vows to Bow Out of Movies

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
July 15, 1997

LOS ANGELES, July 14 -- Stung by criticism that its participation in the film "Contact" was an ethical breach, Cable News Network announced today that its journalists would no longer participate in movies.

CNN President Tom Johnson said he initially thought the appearance of more than a dozen of the network's journalists in the sci-fi drama starring Jodie Foster would make a good summertime promotion, but has reconsidered in the wake of widespread criticism that it damaged the network's journalistic credibility.

"What we started with was a recommendation that this would be very good for promotion and cross-promotion during the summer, at a time when audience levels were down," Johnson said after a speech to the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, where several audience members grilled him about the issue.

"I think, having now experienced some of the concerns internally and externally, that we will put in a policy that our journalists will not appear in the movies, period," he added. "It seems to blur the lines in the minds of both our professional community and perhaps with others."

CNN's presence in "Contact" has attracted attention not merely because the all-news network is featured so prominently -- 13 CNN journalists play themselves in the film about the discovery of alien radio signals from the star Vega -- but because the company is owned by Time Warner, which is also the corporate parent of Warner Bros., the studio that made "Contact." To some, CNN's role in "Contact" appears to be an extended plug for the network and represents an unexpected example of the corporate "synergy" stemming from the multimedia mergers of a few years ago.

Media critics questioned whether this breaches the much-touted separation between news divisions and their corporate parents. "When entertainment companies buy news organizations, one would hope that they don't mix purposes. When you watch CNN you don't think Warner Brothers movies are getting a leg up from movie reviewers, business reporters -- or in any other way," says Tom Rosenstiel, the director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "To the extent that they see direct synergies in which they can promote the movies in their news, or promote their news in their movies, that's synergy of a troubling kind."

CNN journalists held divergent views of the matter. Some, including White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer, opposed the channel's participation. But anchor Bernard Shaw, who appears in "Contact" as well as Universal's "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," thought the promotion was harmless. "It is product placement. That's clearly what it is," he said. "But within that, I had no qualms about doing what I did in the movie. . . . There is no organized, orchestrated marketing plan in existence that will have you seeing CNN people routinely appearing in Warner Brothers movies."

Johnson said the corporate connection had no bearing on CNN's decision to collaborate on the movie. "It was absolutely not even related to it," he said. "We have more requests from non-Time Warner companies and we looked at this as terrific cross-promotion, more in the spirit of summer fun, than anything that is out of character for CNN."

But the Time Warner connection certainly helped matters along, starting with a request made by Warner Bros. Chairman Robert Daly to Johnson last year. After several months of delay, network executives agreed to the project and a CNN manager coordinated the effort, dispensing scripts to 25 journalists who were paid a minimum rate of $595 a day for their work, according to "Contact" producer Steve Starkey. Only 13 made the movie's final cut, in which they were shown reporting on or debating the "news" from Vega. Among those included were everyone from talk show hosts Larry King and John Sununu to anchors Bernard Shaw and Bobbie Battista to correspondents Claire Shipman and Jill Dougherty.

This is not the only recent example of so-called synergy. The Disney film "Hercules" has been featured extensively in on-air promotions on ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., and the animated film even has a Disney store in its Greek agora. Likewise, Paramount films are often promoted at Blockbuster video stores; both are units of Viacom (which also owns MTV and Simon & Schuster).

But to some journalists, the use of real reporters in a fictional film raises the additional issue of professional ethics and credibility. ABC, CBS and NBC all have policies barring their journalists from acting. Local affiliates are generally not as strict and there have been exceptions to the network rule, such as the appearance of star journalists on shows like "Murphy Brown." But for the most part, network news executives say they automatically turn down requests for their journalists to appear in movies.

"It's our feeling that we don't have our reporters or other news people join in fictional creations. They deal in reality. That's all," said Richard Wald, senior vice president at ABC News. "There's always somebody who wants someone to lend our credibility to their film. Our answer is no."

Only Sunday a CNN spokesman defended the network's policy, saying that it turned down most movie requests and noting: "If it is a credible presentation of what CNN is, who its people are, in a realistic setting, that would positively position us, we are willing to consider it."

Starkey says he was denied CNN's help on "Forrest Gump," another film by "Contact" director Robert Zemeckis -- which was not a Warner Bros. production. But CNN crews appear in the upcoming "Air Force One," a Columbia Pictures release.

Shaw said he does not feel his credibility is affected by acting in a movie like "Contact," but did note that when he turned down a cameo in a Warner Bros. comedy in April, one studio executive "was apoplectic."

"I don't feel that I'm diminished one scintilla as a serious, practicing journalist, or that it diminished CNN as a serious all-news television network," Shaw said. "I have final say as to what I do -- not CNN."

Rosenstiel countered that the effect on journalistic credibility is long-term, not a matter of whether moviegoers really believe that a space machine is sending Jodie Foster to Vega because CNN reporter John Holliman says so.

"This is a problem because of what's going on in journalism, where the lines between journalism and all other forms of communication are blurred to the point where reality and fiction become indistinguishable. It's up to journalists to try to protect that line," he said. "Our main allegiance is to give people accurate information in a fair and disinterested way. We risk that when go too far in the direction of entertainment. It weakens our credibility."

For Starkey, using journalists in "Contact" was a useful device to draw audiences into the film. "If people are watching a movie and seeing familiar faces it feels more real, more immediate," he said. "We were really hoping to get that immediacy. Also, the use of news to propel our story is quite extensive; we do use it more than normal. The reason we don't have a variety of [non-CNN] reporters is because we didn't have access to them. It's that simple."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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