Ethical questions about retired TV anchors pitching for-profit Medicare plans

“Should a journalist, even one who has been retired from local TV news for nearly four years, leverage the credibility he developed as an objective, independent reporter to tout one insurance company for pay?”

That’s the question Eric Deggans, TV/media critic of the St. Petersburg Times asks about longtime Tampa Bay area TV anchor Bob Hite now hawking one company’s Medicare Advantage plan in infomercials. Hite retired from TV news several years ago.

Deggans reports:

“The blurring of lines between advertising and journalism still makes some TV news experts uneasy.

“It is really awkward and uncomfortable,” said Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent now serving as executive director for Newslab a training center based in Washington, D.C. “You can’t tell (retired) people to pass up an opportunity. But transparency is key; if there’s the potential for confusion in the viewers’ mind, that’s troubling.”

Hite isn’t alone. Former WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor Frank Robertson, who left the station in 2009 after nearly 21 years, appears in a different ad for Optimum, sitting behind what looks like an anchor desk trading lines with a woman who looks like a co-anchor.

“That’s probably why I do get selected for so many spots; they do feel I have some credibility,” said Robertson, who also has voiced ads for a local chiropractic practice and a medical security device. “I do feel, once you’ve established yourself as a commercial spokesperson, you can’t go back. You’re not the news guy anymore.”

The company plans to air Hite’s half-hour infomercial about 200 times through early December; Robertson’s ad could air up to 500 times, placed in local newscasts when seniors are likely watching, said Joe Vessio, head of sales and marketing for Freedom Health Care and Optimum.

“All these ads are terribly confusing for people,” said Charles Franckle, a retired economist who works as a volunteer counselor through the state-funded SHINE program (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders). “All of them are just touting the advantages and none of the disadvantages.”

It’s ironic that Hite shows such an interest in Medicare and health policy issues now. In a 2005 BMJ article, I described my 2004 election-year analysis of three TV stations’ coverage of health policy issues and one of the three was Hite’s WFLA when he was the anchor. How interested was his prime-time news show in such issues back then in an election year? My findings:

“WFLA devoted only 84 seconds to the Bush-Kerry health platforms in six stories. Serving the Florida Gulf coast, heavy with senior citizens, WFLA managed only three stories in 10 months on Medicare, totalling less than 2.5 minutes.”


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