When Trouble Shoots Back
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."
Martino doesn't view himself as a reporter, however -- he's an advocate, damn it! -- and he sees no reason why he should have to play by the rules that apply to Channel 4. ("They want to control editorial content by their standard of ethics," he sniffs.) He believes that people are smart enough to make distinctions between his style and by-the-numbers journalism, no matter what Rockford thinks. Besides, doesn't Channel 4 have some of the very same conflicts he does?
"They do something called 'Companies for Colorado' inside their newscast," he points out. "They're commercials that have the News 4 logo superimposed next to the company's logo, and they say, 'News 4 salutes the XYZ Company.' And you know why they salute them? Because they pay them! I've told Marv that some of the companies on there are ripping people off, and I get more complaints about them than anyone else. And he's told me, 'Blah, blah, blah.'"
Although Martino doesn't specifically charge Rockford with shielding "Companies for Colorado" advertisers from his wrath because of their financial relationship with Channel 4, Rockford is irritated by the slightest suggestion that he might have done so. "We have never shied away from doing stories about advertisers if there was something we thought warranted further investigation," he says. Likewise, he resents Martino's insinuation that the use of the News 4 logo might be interpreted as an endorsement by the news department. "'News 4' is the way we refer to the station as a whole, and we provide a variety of news and entertainment programming."
You'll get no apologies from Martino about his entrepreneurial instincts, which include Rescue Radio, a corporation that encompasses all his assorted endeavors. "I contract to KHOW through Rescue Radio," he reveals. "It's a real advantage when it comes to benefits, retirement -- stuff for my wife and I."
He's sure that his independence was part of Channel 4's problem with him: "They don't want their people having a Web site and a consulting business and being a personality and having a radio show where you can call fire down on potential clients. I'm a liability to establishments like Channel 4. I don't fit in."
He feels the match will be better at Channel 31 because "Fox isn't conventional; it's not a conventional network, from the top down. They're more aggressive. They don't care about ruffling feathers, and they like what I do -- and I like what they're going to do, too. I don't like being in a static or sleepy position, and I think local news has become boring. But they're going to be edgier -- and by that I mean telling people something other than what they already read in the newspapers, and on some issues actually taking a stand."
When he's told about Martino's portrayal of the Fox 31 newscast, which isn't expected to debut for months yet, news director Dallman is a bit taken aback, since most of the on-air and behind-the-scenes talent hasn't even been hired yet (newest teammate: ex-Bronco/sports anchor David Treadwell), and the program itself remains in the conceptual stages. "To be honest with you, Tom doesn't even know what Tom's segment will look like on our newscast yet," he says. But he quickly notes (so as not to tick off his temperamental troubleshooter), "He's got lots of ideas and he's excited, and that's great. Ultimately, we want to come up with something we all agree with, and he's fine with that. What you will see will be a team effort that will take into account an understanding of what he does and what he'd like to see."
What about Martino's other enterprises? "The stuff that Tom does on the Web site and on the radio is quite separate from what he'll do on TV, and we think we'll be able to make it quite clear in the viewers' minds that it's separate," Dallman says. "I know that's not the pure-as-the-driven-snow answer, but Tom and I have talked enough about it, and I believe that it'll be fine." Dallman's even more cautious when it comes to the advocacy topic, doing his best to pay homage to the gods of morality even as he tries to reassure Martino about the length of his leash. "When we started talking to Tom, we made it clear that what we were looking for was a consumer investigative reporter who would give fair and balanced reports based on information our viewers want and need to know, and we believe that's what he'll do. Tom's talking about being an advocate, and what we're talking about is him being an advocate for our viewers. I don't know how other people want to define it, or how they see it vis-à-vis traditional journalism, but as long as everyone understands that Tom is there to fight for our viewers, regardless of who the adversary is, then it'll be fine."
Until then, Martino is eager to take on all comers, no matter how far afield they may seem. In a recent broadcast, he even blistered the voters of the VH1-sponsored 100-greatest-rock-and-roll-songs poll for daring to include something by that notorious poseur Bruce Springsteen even as they overlooked far better contributions from the likes of Kansas. (Get "Born to Run" the hell outta here! 'Cuz it sure ain't no "Dust in the Wind"!) Meanwhile, any businessperson who thinks his values are elevated enough to satisfy Martino should belly up to the bar -- and bring his checkbook along.
"If somebody wants to pay me to make them treat consumers better," Martino says, "I don't see any harm in that."
One of the changes at the Denver Post reported here last week has already changed again: Business writer Stephen Keating, who told Westword he was leaving to become director of research for the Privacy Foundation, a startup helmed by ex-Liberty Media chief Peter Barton, has been named as the Post's assistant business editor -- a job he'll do at the same time that he's working for the Privacy Foundation. It's an adjustment that raises ethical (that term again) questions, given the pervasiveness of Internet-related stories in the Post, not to mention the number of present and former associates of Barton's who continue to make news (like John Malone, for instance). To prevent conflicts, new business editor Don Knox says Keating won't work on any stories involving the Privacy Foundation, the privacy or credit-card arenas in which the company operates, or pieces involving people who may be involved with the firm as boardmembers. Knox, who left journalism himself for a time to work in the Internet field, concedes that these logistics may be challenging, "but we're trying to be as flexible as we can so that we can keep good reporters and promote good editors."
Another interpretation: Please don't leave all at once! We've still got a paper to put out!
And speaking of leaving: A Post source says that departing assistant city editor Arthur Hodges earned cheers when, during a rousing farewell address to staffers, he suggested five ways that the Post could become a better paper. Included on his list: get reporters real phones (the ones they have now won't even allow them to put someone on hold) and actually pay for a Christmas party rather than going the potluck route -- because nothing says "cheap" like a company that won't shell out for a Christmas party. Leftover lasagne, anyone?
In the December 23 column, "Wake-Up Call," Channel 2 news director Steve Grund said he wanted WB2day, a morning show that debuted January 17, to "feel very welcoming -- at times irreverent, but never over the edge to indulgent and clowny."
Judged by that criterion, the program is (at least thus far) a catastrophe on par with the crash of the Hindenburg ("Oh! The humanity!"). You want indulgence and clowniness? How about weather deliverer Amy Freeze doing splits with the Denver Broncos cheerleaders? Or maybe anchor Jeff Peterson ogling the barely concealed jugs of teenage trollop Britney Spears as she appeared at the American Music Awards? ("I hope nobody turned on the air conditioning," Peterson sniggered to co-host Laura Thornquist, in an apparent acknowledgment that Denver TV has lately been suffering from a severe shortage of early-morning nipple jokes.) And that's not to mention hyperactive yukster Dan Daru, who moves like a man with a live cattle prod up his bum. On the 17th, his franticness was so over the top during a "surprise" chat with nighttime anchors Ernie Bjorkman and Wendy Brockman at a local bagel joint that Brockman, in particular, seemed positively freaked out by him -- and she's married to the guy! Really!
And yet the unalloyed, stupefying peculiarity of WB2day is not without its charms. By comparison with the pre-7 a.m. morning shows on channels 4, 7 and 9, which are brisk and professional, distributing the usual news, weather, sports, business and traffic data in an efficient manner (and preventing the occasional witticisms sprinkled here or there from overwhelming the rest of the broadcast), the program is absolute anarchy.
Sure, WB2day conforms to the morning formula in a basic way, right down to its use of sophisticated new graphics and a spiffy set that's also employed on the 9 p.m. broadcast. (One problem, though: The opaque glass that serves as a backdrop for late-night anchors Bjorkman and Brockman makes them look as if they're seated in front of a shower door). But the actual dispensing of facts takes a backseat to other shenanigans that will leave many viewers either shaking their heads or banging them against the nearest wall. One morning during the first week, Peterson spoke live to his mother (who told him that his trendy "messy" haircut made him seem as if he'd just climbed out of bed); on another, Freeze chatted with her dad; and on yet another, Thornquist trotted out her two-year-old son, who did baby-talk throws to weather and traffic. What's next? Nephews? Aunts? Second cousins?
There have been other impromptu visits to the studio as well, none of which seem to have been blocked out in advance -- imagine the hilarity when visitors stand with their backs to cameras for what seems like minutes at a time -- plus readings of e-mails about the stars of the show (a fella who probably typed his message with one hand wanted Freeze to know that she was really hot!). And who could forget the live shot from Ocean Journey during which a chucklesome reporter revealed that the woman she was interviewing used to be her sorority sister? Or the time when Daru, at a fishing expo, declared, "The way to a man's heart is through his fly"?
As the hosts admitted on January 21, Channel 2 is getting no shortage of calls from tots bummed that Pokémon was bumped from its 7 a.m. time slot to make room for this looniness -- and my three offspring were definitely among the displeased. But after a week of on-and-off viewing, one member of the trio was won over; last Friday she asked, "Can you turn it to the horrible show?"
Congratulations, Mr. Grund: That's one thumb up for indulgent and clowny.
Another week, another attack on KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles -- this time a boycott by the Denver Police Protective Association because Boyles gave mucho airtime on January 20 to Jim Kearney, a private investigator who argued that Denver cops who killed Ismael Mena last September shot him through his bedroom door. But for Boyles, this swipe at his character (which led to a verbal sparring bout with the DPPA's John Wyckoff on the 21st) came at the best possible time. Boyles couldn't help but look bad to some for the way he made murdered schoolteacher Emily Johnson's past part of his search for her killers ("A World of Possibilities," January 20). Now, however, he's coming across as a crusader for justice who's being unjustly singled out simply for giving a platform to Kearney, who'd been quoted in both the Post and the News earlier in the week.
Pete, you oughta give Wyckoff a big kiss right on the mouth. Because he just did you a big favor.
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.