Synergy and the day of infamy

ABCNEWS.com straddles the line with its Pearl Harbor package

This column appeared May 31, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Visitors to ABCNEWS.com’s “Pearl Harbor” package may be forgiven if they roll their eyes a bit at an increasingly familiar sight in the media universe: synergy. Like a raid of Japanese torpedo bombers, synergy was splattered all over the place this past week as the news site devoted a slick, handsome package to Pearl Harbor, the historical event, and “Pearl Harbor,” the movie from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.

But when does synergy morph into conflict of interest? What happens when a news operation begins to internalize some of the traits of an entertainment giant that happens to be its corporate parent? And what happens when history and fiction begin to meld in users’ minds?

Those concerned about the media’s mix of fact and fiction and the ethical entanglements posed by corporate influence over an online news operation had plenty to chew over with last Friday’s premiere of “Pearl Harbor,” the summer blockbuster that pulled in $75.1 million at the holiday weekend box office, ranking No. 2 on the all-time list for four-day openings.

The ABCNEWS.com Pearl Harbor package intertwined historical events with photos from fictitious Hollywood characters who never existed. And Sam Donaldson’s weekly Webcast, which originated from Pearl Harbor this week, also straddled the line between fact and fiction by splicing footage from the movie into a documentary scene.

Donaldson acknowledged in a phone interview Thursday that he regretted the way that a segment of his Webcast mixed historical and cinematic footage. The half-hour Webcast features interviews with survivors of the attack and a WWII historian, followed by interviews with the movie’s producer, director and stars Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, followed again by those whose lives were changed by the bombing, including Sen. Daniel Inouye.

“There was one place where I think we made a mistake,” Donaldson said. “Early on there was a seven-second clip from the movie juxtaposed next to historical footage. It was jarring. This is no excuse, but we were all working against a deadline. We sent the modules to New York, they digitized them and put them up and it was already late on a Friday night. Our crew discussed it and we said if we had to do it over again we’d remove that movie video, for two reasons: a) it could be confusing to some viewers, and b) why are we using it there when we have the historical stuff from the period? It shouldn’t have been there.”

Why run a photo (courtesy of Disney-owned Buena Vista Films) of a fictitious film character being wounded when you have available images of real soldiers (in black-and-white photos and film clips), real veterans (in color, even!), and real artifacts and memorabilia?

Worries over journalistic independence and historical accuracy — as opposed to, say, cross-corporate promotional puffery — are understandable, particularly in light of Disney chairman Michael Eisner’s memo to all staffers early last week, in which he minced no words about the importance of “Pearl Harbor” for Disney: “… I don’t need to list the cast or give you the synopsis of the plot. I will just give you the synopsis of the film’s significance for our company: Enormous (enough said).”

Eisner’s journalistic stock isn’t exactly up there with the likes of Murrow or Cronkite, given his prior expressed views that Disney should be off-limits to coverage from ABC News.

But Donaldson and Randy Stearns, who oversaw direction of ABCNEWS.com’s Pearl Harbor package, both say — and I believe them — that corporate considerations played no role in the production of the impressive Web package and Donaldson’s weekly Webcast.

Instead, the impetus for the Web site’s Pearl Harbor package came internally. “ABC tends to be somewhat independent of the other units in the company,” said Stearns, director of broadcast integration and special projects for ABCNEWS.com. “We did know the network would air a one-hour special Saturday night on Pearl Harbor. We knew ‘Good Morning America’ would do a series of pieces the week leading up to the film’s release. We knew that other media like CNN and MSNBC were giving this a big splash — Newsweek put it on its cover. And there was the synergy factor: This was the year’s first big summer blockbuster and we wanted to put our two cents in on it. It would have been weird if we were the only news outlet that chose to ignore it.”

Stearns said the online unit’s creative department took the lead in driving the project. “It turned out we spent a lot more energy on the history of the period and we wound up doing a lot less on the movie than we originally planned,” he said.

All told, about 15 people in the creative, editorial and media departments worked on the project at various times during the past month, he said. The result was a first-rate piece of journalism: perspective and analysis from historians, a timeline of events that led up to the attack, eyewitness accounts from both sides, a look at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the Japanese, an analysis of conspiracy theories about FDR’s motives, a Flash-animated 3-D museum portraying memorabilia related to the attack, Asian-Americans’ worries about the film, and various pieces related to the movie.

Visitors to ABCNEWS.com’s site would have been hard-pressed to miss the Pearl Harbor package: newsworthy links originated from the home page, business and entertainment sections (reporting on blockbuster movie openings), World News and US News sections (pointing to a story on how the historical events are viewed abroad) and Memorial Day page.

The Pearl Harbor package “did very well,” drawing nearly 500,000 page views as of Wednesday, Stearns said. Its splash page was the No. 5 most-visited page on the site for the week, while the main introduction page ranked No. 10, he added.

Mixing fact and fantasy

It’s that introduction page that may raise an eyebrow or two. In my view, it diminishes the Web team’s otherwise admirable efforts by cheapening the memory of the 2,400 Americans who died that morning. Why run a photo (courtesy of Disney-owned Buena Vista Films) of a fictitious film character being wounded when you have available images of real soldiers (in black-and-white photos and film clips), real veterans (in color, even!), and real artifacts and memorabilia?

“That was my decision,” Stearns said. “We used the movie event to get people interested in thinking about the issues, the controversy, the characters involved in the actual event. You don’t need fiction to make a great story out of Pearl Harbor, but our assumption was that a lot of our readers are not intimately familiar with the history, and this was a way to draw them in.

“History is essentially a dead letter for most people except as it lives in their memory or imagination or in popular culture representations. For better or worse, Hollywood is now involved in shaping history through popular culture interpretations,” said Stearns, who taught history as a graduate student at Rutgers University. “Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and ‘Nixon’ also raised questions about truth and fiction. These are manufactured media events in some ways, and we can engage people by getting them to look at pop culture Hollywood representations with the ultimate goal of getting them to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying events.

“Maybe I’m more of a postmodernist,” he added. “Hard news can sometimes be so straightforward and matter of fact that people shut it out. I prefer a little complexity, where you engage people’s imagination and let them examine their own assumptions. But it’s a very tricky business.”

At the outset, ABCNEWS.com’s staff took a cautious approach to Disney’s movie. “The editorial group had lively discussions about how to handle this,” Stearns said. “Many of them were frankly skeptical, with the view, ‘This is fictional, it’s just another pop culture event and we don’t want to make too much of this movie. We have to be careful not to overplay it because it’s a Disney movie.’

“But in the end, when it was finished and everyone saw the high quality of the graphics and the skepticism in our reporting, people were pretty comfortable with the package.”

Other shades of gray

Throughout the package, Stearns said, the editors used historical black-and-white photos for stories related to the attack and color images for articles related to the movie. “I don’t think we skirted the line,” he said. “I think readers can tell fiction from fact here.”

He’s probably right. But two other items, involving promotional features, do straddle the line:

•  Clicking on the phrase Pearl Harbor on various pages on the site transported the user to Touchstone Pictures’ “Pearl Harbor” site, complete with a coupon for a free small popcorn!

Said Stearns: “We did that partly because it would have been very labor-intensive for us to get the clips, process them and put it up on our own popup screen. At that point you were looking at the promotional machine for the movie and we didn’t want to repackage that in the guise of news.”

•  A front-page promotion teased to the conspiracy article this way:

The Attack on Pearl Harbor …
Did the U.S. government have advance warning?
ABCNEWS.com investigates

But the “investigation” turned up nothing historians hadn’t known for the past 10 years.

Stearns said that the public was still largely unaware of the debate. “Were our findings brand new? No, the history is not, but we wanted to pierce the generally held myth that the U.S. was this naive teenager lolling on the beach, reluctant to go to war, and these treacherous Japanese came in and bombed us. I don’t think most readers are familiar with that point of view.”

‘A healthy debate’ for a news site

Let’s conclude by returning to the original issues of corporate synergy and conflicts of interest.

“Clearly we decided to get on the promotional bandwagon to create excitement around this event, with some trepidation,” Stearns said. “We balanced that against the idea that we take our users seriously and we think they’d like to be engaged by the mix of history and entertainment that we’ve presented them with.

“I think it’s a very healthy debate for an editorial group to engage in,” he said. “Like anything else, it’s not so much what you do, it’s how you do it. I think there’s a certain school of hard-news journalists who would take exception with this kind of reporting. I come from more of a features reporting background. But I’d argue that we didn’t cross the line.”

(To its credit, ABCNEWS.com does disclose its relationship as a unit of Disney in various articles in the package.)

For his part, the jovial Donaldson has no regrets about two other matters that may fall into the media’s ever-growing ethically gray box:

Halfway through his Webcast he turns to his producer Vanessa Boyer and asks whether she’s seen the movie. “Is it worth it?”

“Oh, I’d say it kept my interest,” Boyer responds diplomatically. What else could she say, since Disney foots her paycheck, as well as Donaldson’s?

Donaldson also said he sees no reason to mention ABCNEWS.com’s relationship with Disney in his Webcast. “I said at the outset of the segment that it’s a Disney release. Do I have to remind people that I work for Disney? I thought, I don’t think so. Do Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel? I wasn’t able to catch Saturday night’s one-hour ABC News special in which we brought David Brinkley out of retirement to update the piece he did in 1991 on the 50th anniversary of the attack. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t intone in his unmistakable voice (doing his best Brinkley imitation): ‘This is David Brinkley, and I work for Disney, and here are some scenes from Disney’s ‘Pearl Harbor.'”

Maybe Donaldson is right, maybe not. If I were the reporter, I’d err on the side of disclosure.

As for the Web site’s Pearl Harbor package, I’ll say this:

I visited the USS Arizona for the first time last December on the 59th anniversary of the attack and was moved by what I saw. It is a place of deep reverence, of ghosts, of men and women whose legacy means incalculable things to our nation.

We have all seen FDR proclaim Dec. 7, 1941, as a day of infamy. We’ve heard it so many times that it has lost its emotional wallop. But visiting ABC’s Web site and hearing the breaking radio report of the attack from CBS, NBC’s coverage from Honolulu and Washington, and a day-after broadcast of interviews from the streets of Washington, D.C., brought chills to my spine.

This is what the Web can do for us. If only ABCNEWS.com had not compromised the experience by playing up the Hollywood spectacle.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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