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When Trouble Shoots Back

Tom Martino brings his controversial consumer advocacy to Fox.

Bill Dallman, the Fox 31 news director recently featured in this space ("Twenty-First Century Fox," January 13), had better work overtime to keep his first hire, chest-pounding radio troubleshooter Tom Martino, fat and happy. Because if Martino's 1999 departure from Channel 4 is any indication, he's not a guy to leave a job quietly.

Yep, Martino set off some gen-u-ine sonic booms last September when his split with Channel 4, where he'd done consumer reports for over eighteen years, was announced in both dailies. Take the quotes he gave to the Denver Post, in which he eschewed it-was-time-to-move-on-but-I-wish-everyone-there-the-best niceties for a scorched-earth policy that cast him as the Last Man With Integrity finally escaping from a fetid pool of mediocrity: "I do not want to be an objective, milquetoast TV newsperson," he declared. "I want to be a consumer advocate."

He turned up this attack a couple of notches in "My New Assignment," an essay he posted on his Web site, www.troubleshooter.com, in which he wrote that his exit couldn't be avoided since the station "had lost its soul. No longer was aggressive reporting rewarded. Instead we were told, 'Don't make waves.' One recurring question reporters were asked about their stories: 'Will this make anyone angry?'"

Of course, Martino wants to make folks mad -- as long as those folks are venomous evildoers with their fingers in the pockets of average Joes and Janes, that is. But for all his bluster on KHOW, where he rips into reputed reprobates each weekday from noon to 3 p.m., he's vulnerable to queries about what his critics regard as dubious cash-earning activities -- matters that Channel 4 general manager Marv Rockford says were raised prior to Martino's decision to flee.

Many of the issues in dispute are rooted in Troubleshooter.com, an arm of Martino's "Troubleshooter Digital Network," which is intended to protect guileless shoppers from the crooks, scumbags, thieves and con artists clogging the marketplace. One page on the site gathers such nasties under the umbrella term "Sleaze Brigade"; on it, Martino names the names of those "idiots" who he believes "have provided inadequate customer service or substandard products, based on his personal investigation or complaints from his audience." But most of the entries don't contain nearly enough information to determine whether these accusations have merit or not. Internet surfers simply must take Tom's word for it.

A considerably thornier matter is Martino's "Referral List," a roster of service providers, lumped into ten categories, whom Martino actively recommends. There are plenty of businesses from which to choose: The "Home" grouping spotlights more than 150 firms specializing in everything from air duct and furnace cleaning to window-well covers.

The rub? These businesses must pay before the Troubleshooter will support them -- a far cry from the no-commercialization policy employed by Consumer Reports, widely regarded as the most principled organization in its field.

The lengthy, Martino-penned introduction to the referral section offers plenty of explanations intended to lower any eyebrows raised by his approach. Those listed "must first qualify to be a sponsor with an excellent track record and commitment to customer service and satisfaction. The decision to include them is solely my personal opinion, based on my experience." Sponsorship is supposedly necessary because "it takes many thousands of dollars to develop and maintain this Web site, to screen clients, arbitrate problems and answer inquiries...We simply could not afford to offer this service without some type of financial support."

Finally, participants must adhere to a code of ethics that requires them to allow Martino himself to arbitrate any consumer gripes -- and if they don't jump through other hoops as well, they face the prospect of expulsion at the hands of Big Tom. "No sponsors can buy their way onto this Web site nor can they stay here unless they adhere to the following standards," the intro claims. But despite these rationalizations, there remains a single, inescapable bottom line: Martino's stamp of approval has a price tag.

To his credit, Martino, who also runs a nonprofit charity called the Tom Martino Help Center Foundation, doesn't try to hide these arrangements. He says he's up front about everything because the advertising dollars he collects won't protect these businesses if he or his staff (a mix of volunteers and paid associates such as on-air sidekicks Donna Lavery and "Father" John Fiest) start receiving bad reports. "I don't take the money and tell them, 'Wink, wink, if you advertise here, you'll never hear me mention a problem about you.' I can be a pain in the ass, and if we investigate a complaint about a sponsor and it's not resolved to our satisfaction, we don't think twice about kicking them off."

According to him, he's refused to sign up uncounted businesses that didn't seem kosher and ousted approximately ten from the list since its mid-'90s inception. He vows to reject more if need be. "You don't do what I do for 26 years and not have your ethics questioned. But I've never had my ethics questioned. Never."

That depends on who's defining the ethics. Rockford doesn't accuse Martino of any misconduct, but he hints that some observers might be troubled by the appearance of impropriety, even if none actually exists. And that's not to mention Martino's paid public appearances at business meetings and conventions (like one in Orlando last week), which fits Rockford's description of corporate consulting -- another would-be conflict of interest. Moreover, Rockford notes that Martino is interested in taking on "an advocacy role" in which he makes his own position clear "instead of necessarily trying to present two sides of a story." He concedes that "there's nothing wrong with that. But it simply doesn't fit within the comparatively narrow context of what we do in television news broadcasts, where we require our reporters to be fair and accurate and balanced in their approach to stories."

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