Even by Nightly News's abysmally low standards, last Tuesday's "news story" about the coffee wars between McDonald's and Starbucks was appallingly shameful. Let's be clear: This story was a two-minute-and-fifteen-second commercial for McDonald's (and to a lesser extent, Starbucks). The hucksterism began before the story even started. In the intro, Ann Curry told us that the story was about, "...how much we are willing to pay for the delicious brew they make." We don't need to form our own opinion--Ann Curry has already told us that McDonald's and Starbucks make delicious coffee. The story itself is chock full of ads for McDonald's new McCafe coffees. There are a total of 22 seconds of excerpts from McDonald's TV commercials. And Starbucks print ads are also featured prominently. A McDonald's Senior VP tells us, "Well, we definitely have coffee experts and they will be ready to serve our customers a great tasting cup of coffee any time of the day." A Starbucks VP of Marketing retorts, "We sell coffee. We sell it at great value and we sell it with a human touch. And that is our secret and I think it will be difficult for those doing burger and fries to also deliver that." When you total up the various ad excerpts and the comments from the two VP's, they total 47 seconds, or 35% of the entire story. So more than a third of the story is devoted to commercials and weaselly ad-speak.
I have only one question: How much did McDonald's pay NBC to air this "news story"? Are we supposed to believe that it is just a coincidence that Nightly News ran this story on the very day that McDonald's launched their specialty coffees? Or perhaps the story was part of a giveback. When a network TV show fails to achieve the rating that was promised to the advertisers, the network is contractually obligated to give the advertisers additional spots at no extra charge. Maybe this "coffee wars" story was compensation to McDonald's for NBC shows that had lower-than-expected ratings. Or maybe it was just NBC showing some love to a major advertiser. After all, NBC has done this kind of thing before. A Feb. 23 Nightly News story was devoted to how well United Airlines (a major NBC advertiser) cleans their planes. And a Jan. 31 "news story" purportedly about 3-D technology in ads prominently featured commercial clips from "Lifewater"--a beverage that would be advertising on NBC's Super Bowl the following day.
NBC has a track record of using their Nightly News broadcast to promote their regular advertisers. The "coffee wars" story is only the latest example. In the news business, there is supposed to be a clear line between advertising and news content. The NBC executives not only ignore that line, but they encourage their producers to cross it. And that is a violation of the viewers' trust. NBC is acting unethically and they owe their viewers an apology as well as a promise that they will stop engaging in this type of improper behavior.
Postscript: On Monday's Nightly News, there was a story about the excessive amounts of sodium found in the average American's diet. The author of the study, The Center For Science in the Public Interest, tested the food at a number of popular and well-known chain restaurants. One of the chains found to be serving excessive amounts of sodium in their food was McDonald's. Did Brian Williams or correspondent Rehema Ellis mention McDonald's in the context of this negative story? Of course not. When it comes to promoting McDonald's coffee, Nightly News can't say enough. But when the subject is dangerous amounts of sodium, Nightly News has never heard of the Golden Arches.