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Media Circus

Tempest in a TV Pot

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/7/2001

I am not the biggest fan of WBAL-TV's (channel 11) Jayne Miller--her stagy hard-boiled-reporter shtick sometimes induces guffaws--but she's an actual journalist, which in local TV news makes her a standout. Miller knows her material, is capable of digging under the surface of events, and can put a story across persuasively and efficiently. In other words, she can do what dozens of people at The Sun do, plus she has a bit of on-camera charisma. Frankly, I rarely catch Miller's act; I usually watch the News at Ten on WBFF (channel 45), which has, by my count, the highest journalism-to-filler ratio among the locals.

So I'm not playing favorites when I say Miller was ill-served by Sun TV reporter David Folkenflik in the paper's Sunday Arts and Society section Feb. 25. Folkenflik gave Miller her props as a nervy, streetwise reporter, then listed the remarkable number of boards of area nonprofit groups upon which she sits--among them the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, Goodwill Industries, and Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, positions in which she serves with numerous local business and government types. His thesis: There are "potential conflicts [with her journalistic responsibilities] that arise from her involvement in the causes she has embraced." Folkenflik quoted by name three individuals who found an inherent problem with Miller's extra-professional engagements: a teacher of media ethics; a honcho from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a journalist-led watchdog group; and a rival broadcaster, WMAR (channel 2) general manager Drew Berry.

I've read and reread Folkenflik's piece, and I fail to see where any actual problem lies. If anybody mentioned in the article has a substantive conflict, it's state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits with Miller on the board of Goodwill, an organization that competes for state money. I suppose I would be upset if I saw any self-interest in the community efforts to which Miller has attached herself, but it's all white-hat stuff--house the poor, promote the city, stimulate microbusinesses. Far more worrisome to me are the routine, blatant conflicts in which major media outlets indulge for promotional reasons, such as sponsorships of money-making events and partnerships with other self-interested entities. (Did somebody mention the Ravens?) Conflicts of interest are more hazardous to the public good when they arise on the high-stakes corporate level.

Miller's double life as reporter and advocate makes an interesting subject for what could have been a straightforward profile--one that should raise the issue of potential conflicts. But in making ethical innuendo the main thrust of his article, Folkenflik comes off as a guy who went fishing and came back with nothing but a fish story.

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