If sheer media attention is any measure, the Web assault that diet pill maker Metabolife mounted against "20/20" was a major success. From the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to Newsweek and Time, the company's preemptive strike against the ABC program got plenty of ink.
By the time the segment aired Oct. 15, the fact that it was actually quite balanced was, well, no longer news.
"Clearly, people at ABC were concerned by the implications of their strategy," "20/20" correspondent Arnold Diaz says of Metabolife. "I don't think they were successful in neutralizing our report. I don't think our report would have been any different, as far as the thrust of it, had they not done this. . . . If their intent was to get more people to watch the story, they were successful in doing that."
Metabolife Chairman Michael Ellis acknowledges that the program was "not terribly unfair," saying: "I think they did the best job of doing a balanced 'unbalanced' story that they could do." But he credits his $2 million publicity campaign, calling it "effective in holding '20/20's' feet to the fire to some degree."
The company made its own videotape of Diaz's 70-minute interview with Ellis, put it on the Web and touted it in full-page newspaper ads--the clear suggestion being that "20/20" was going to unfairly chop up the session into misleading snippets. But the program gave Ellis numerous opportunities to declare his product safe.
The gist of the ABC report was that while Metabolife claims its pills are "laboratory-tested for safety" by "two major universities," researchers on the two studies cited say their work has been "misrepresented," as one put it, by the company. Ellis concedes this is fair game, and that "20/20" also interviewed a Yale instructor suggested by the company who defends Metabolife. What's more, Ellis acknowledged on the air that while his packaging boasts of "multi-species testing," that meant rats, mice and dogs, not humans.
Ellis also says it was fair for ABC to report that in 1988 he was charged with illegally making methamphetamine, or speed, and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. But he complains that "20/20" showed footage of police making arrests in the case, even though he surrendered voluntarily. Diaz says Ellis's arrest was part of a major bust and that the program did not suggest the footage involved him personally.
Metabolife's other complaints are typical of the disagreements between journalists and a corporate target. The company says ABC should not have interviewed a physician critical of Metabolife who has worked for the rival Slim Fast organization. Diaz says ABC mentioned the connection and that the doctor has done consulting work for a number of companies, not just Slim Fast.
Ellis says ABC's interview with a woman who was hospitalized after taking Metabolife unfairly suggested that the diet supplement was the cause. Diaz says the story explained there was no clear cause and effect--although doctors' notations raised questions about Metabolife--and disclosed that the woman is suing the company. Besides, he says, "20/20" also interviewed satisfied customers.
The larger issue is whether more companies will insist on making their own tapes of confrontational television interviews, using them to scoop the news organizations by publicizing their own versions first. This could even the odds in an arena in which TV programs once held all the cards--but run the risk of drawing more attention to the allegations in question. The "20/20" broadcast was the highest rated that night among women ages 18 to 49.
"Clearly, we wanted to be fair," Diaz says. "We knew this was controversial. We weren't trying to make it a scare story without any balance to it." He admits that "the publicity was a bit of a distraction."
Ellis says he's glad he adopted his publicist's suggestion of putting the raw videotape online, drawing millions of visitors, so people can make up their own mind. "I think it was a dynamite idea," he says.
In the Hunt
Houston television reporter Cynthia Hunt got national publicity in August when she got a letter from accused serial killer Angel Maturino Resendiz. "Like a lot of reporters, I wrote him first requesting an interview," she told "Good Morning America."
The KTRK-TV reporter wrote Resendiz again, and her handwritten letter has surfaced on the Web site News Blues. Even by the standards of TV correspondents beseeching subjects for interviews, it is a classic:
"Thank you so much for your letter. It was so long and so full of your thoughts. . . . You are smart enough to be your own attorney . . .
"OK, now for your questions. Do I love kids? Yes, yes, yes! . . .
"Above is the picture you requested of Maxwell [her dog]. . . . I had it professionally made--yes, he is like my son.
"I did the best I could on the pictures you requested. . . . Your dogs were playing so it was hard to make a good picture--and Lord Monster never looked at the camera. Your baby is so cute . . .
"An FBI agent once told me that you had a high I.Q. . . .
"Who do you think should win the next presidential race? And why? I was so surprised when you told me you ran for Sheriff. I didn't know that. . . .
"I read with interest what you wrote about Angels. I believe in Angels with my entire heart. . . .
"I would like to be the reporter. . . that tells your story."
Perhaps it's worth recalling that Resendiz may be tried for as many as nine murders in three states. Hunt was on temporary leave and could not be reached and KTRK officials had no comment.
When conservative activist Brent Bozell launched the Conservative News Service, he described it as a fair and accurate venture to counter the mainstream media.
Now Bozell's Media Research Center is raising money to expand the news service and its headquarters--with an assist from no less a media critic than Newt Gingrich.
"CNSNews.com gives the public real news that's not distorted by the leftist filter of the media elite," the former House speaker writes, adding:
"Your donation will enable CNSNews.com to cover more stories, conduct more interviews . . . and the liberals can't stop it."
Bozell, noting that Gingrich is out of office, says that in the past year "I have not heard a single liberal say we have treated him or her unfairly. If you look at the product, it is oftentimes critical of Republicans."