In its bid for viewer eyeballs, TV news turns to the latest craze: LASIK eye surgery. But is there a problem with what you're seeing?
Touch your eyeball. Can you do it? Go on. Put this down for a second and try. Come on, this is serious. Give it a shot. Ready? Still waiting. Almost impossible, even if you're used to putting in contacts, isn't it? Now let someone else touch your eyeball.
Actually, let him or her press on it, to sort of flatten it a little. Now let him or her take a nice, thin, clean razor blade and slice off a nice thin slice of your cornea not all the way off, but enough so that it forms a good-sized flap.
Then let him or her shoot bright little lasers into the exposed eyeball underneath. Then let him or her try to lay the flap back on quit squirming around so much in just the right place. Done? Congratulations! You've just had LASIK surgery. Now you know why they gave you the Valium beforehand.
Jim Hale of Richmond says he didn't get the Valium. He got Larry the Lamb instead.
Larry was the cute little critter Hale held in a "death grip" against his chest while he had LASIK surgery at Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital in January. You remember: Hale was lying there, his sweaty hands crushing the stuffed life out of little Larry, as Larry's little black eyes bulged, black and lifeless, and Hale's got sliced and lasered and reflapped.
Don't remember? Oh, man; it was really something. Sure you didn't catch him on the news? You know Jim Hale, the Channel 6 morning anchor in the news himself?
No? Must have been sweeps week. "'Sleazy,'" says Steve Nash, associate professor of journalism at the University of Richmond, "is not a word I would apply to either of these two situations."
Hale's first-person report is one of them. Julie Bragg's is the other. For Nash, they are more dismaying than disgusting; just another step down for TV news, confirming the axiom that things can always get worse, and frequently do.
Bragg, a weekend anchor and general assignment reporter for Channel 12, also had LASIK surgery on camera last year, when she was the medical reporter at a station in Roanoke.
It also happened to be when Vistar, a group of Roanoke eye doctors, was fighting the big local hospital to start its own eye surgery center. The Vistar docs wanted a state permit to open the new center, saying it would cost patients and insurers less, but the hospital said that would unfairly drain its business.
It was big news in Roanoke for a long time. Like the other local media, Bragg's Channel 10 covered it blow by blow. The business reporter did most of the stories, but Bragg, the medical reporter, did at least one that she and her news director recall.
Then the Vistar doctors offered her the free LASIK surgery.
Nothing really surprising about that. Everybody from Disney to the diet industry offers free stuff for stories: Come on down, give us a try, take the challenge and do a piece about how great your experience was. A common proposition commonly declined.
At another Roanoke station, Channel 7, News Director Jim Kent remembers the Vistar offer last summer, which "our business reporter ... rejected on the spot." But a few weeks later, there was Julie Bragg over on Channel 10, getting LASIKed. Right in the middle of the state permit controversy, it looked to some as if Channel 10 was playing favorites. But the story came and went, and at the end of the year so did Bragg, off to a bigger affiliate, in Richmond, her hometown.
Then the ads started running on her old station, Channel 10. And there was "former medical reporter" Julie Bragg, recalling her successful surgery, apparently the new spokesperson for the eye doctors' group.
"Now that was something we were kind of amazed about," Channel 7's Kent says.
"People would say, 'You blink all the time. Are you tired?'"
No, Jim Hale would reply, it was just his contacts drying out his eyes. Just that, but enough more than enough, for a TV news anchor for him to be more than a little interested in LASIK surgery when he heard about it last year.
By January, he decided to go for it, then got the idea: Why not get a story out of the surgery?
"This was something that ... was not our management's idea," but his, Hale says. Channel 6 News Director Rob Cizek and other station managers were intrigued, but saw two downsides: Would viewers see this as a promotion, an infomercial for LASIK surgery and those who performed it? And more to the point: "What would happen if he were blinded?"
Hale signed an agreement, he and Cizek say, that affirmed the story was Hale's idea alone, that he was paying for the surgery, and that he wouldn't sue Channel 6 if something went wrong.
Hale had the surgery in mid-January and apparently nothing went wrong. In fact, the story looked so good on tape, it was held for about a month before running during ratings week, or "sweeps," in February.
While Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital recently has been advertising heavily on local affiliates, including Channel 6, Hale "was going to do it himself [there] anyway and wanted to share it with the viewers," Cizek says of the surgery.
"I've never had as much feedback on a story," Hale says. "People [still] just come up and make unsolicited inquiries about my eye surgery."
Stay tuned. Hale says he's prepping for a follow-up procedure to his left eye and maybe another story next month. "There's no way you can ever do the news without an appearance of conflict. It's a give and take. There wasn't one negative feedback to this story. I bet you not one in a thousand [viewers] say, 'Whoa, that's a conflict of interest.' Only journalism professors say that."
Shane Moreland, Bragg's former news director at Channel 10 in Roanoke, is unrepentant.
And apparently untroubled by the Radio-Television News Directors Association code of ethics, which states that broadcast journalists should "strive to conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or perceived. They will decline gifts or favors which would influence or appear to influence their judgments."
Bragg's surgery was free, she and Moreland say. It wasn't the only difference between Channel 10's story and Channel 6's.
For example, Bragg and Moreland say, it was the Vistar doctors in Roanoke who approached them with the idea, but, Bragg says, "I was receptive to it because I'm just up for tons of stuff."
She has gotten involved in her stories before, from flying in fighter jets to being dragged through mud to raise awareness of a Toys for Tots campaign, because such first-person journalism enables her to "share experiences that [viewers] can't do, whether it's putting a microphone up in a politician's face," she says, or getting a new kind of eye surgery.
"Like hearing it from a friend, you know?"
Her LASIK surgery story ran first in August and again, with an update, in November another sweeps period because of the initial, "tremendous" response.
"We thought it was a great idea," Moreland says of the story. "We talked about doing a piece on someone who was getting it done," but decided that since Bragg wanted to have the surgery herself, and because "she could tell the experience like no other," it would have "much more impact" because of viewers' familiarity and identification with her.
The bottom line: "A lot of heavy thought didn't go into it," Moreland says. "Was it free advertising for Vistar? I don't know."
Nash, the UR journalism professor, sees much to criticize in both Hale's and Bragg's reports, but he sees bigger problems with the ads that followed Bragg's departure from the Roanoke market, "a conflict of interest retrospectively" in that they call into question whether she was being objective during the earlier state-permit story and first-person surgery report. "You're trading on your credibility as a journalist," and that "diminishes the credibility of all other working journalists," he says. "My guess is that she didn't know any better. My real strong indignation goes to her employers. They do know better."
Moreland pleads not guilty. The ads were "completely up to her," and Bragg was "not bound by her contract with us" after she left the station. "She wouldn't be doing them if she was here, I guarantee you that," he says. As Bragg recalls the ad, "The doctors approached Channel 10 and said ... 'We'll advertise with you guys if we can have Julie do it.' It was business."
Bragg adds that she wasn't paid for the ad, but did it as a favor to the doctors she had come to like and respect: "I did it for them as a friend. ... I only did it because I was leaving the market."
Vistar finally got its state permit in early February, about the time the ads began airing. Channel 12 News Director Nancy Kent says the station supports Bragg but has made it clear to her and others that "we do not endorse products, nor do we accept anything of value in the course of a story. We don't even trade with our hair and makeup," she adds, referring to the "so-and-so's wardrobe provided by" plugs run at the end of some newscasts and most game shows.
But already-successful stations such as Channel 12 can afford to take the high road, and Kent agrees that ratings and the revenue they determine rule every TV news roost, for better or worse.
There are stations that sell integrity and credibility, as Nash would say. And then, as Kent notes, "there are some crazy people doing some crazy things out there."
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