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What does Charles Gibson have in common with a sock puppet?

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 23rd, 2006

In replacing World News Tonight anchor Elizabeth Vargas with Charles Gibson, ABC claims the long-time GMA anchor will add the sort of gravitas (news speak for “He has a penis, and maybe a toupee”) needed to be a long-term heir to Peter Jennings. But for all of Jennings’ inaccuracies and problematic reports over the years (type “Jennings” into the search engine at FAIR.org for more examples than you can sift through), he was at least a journalist who believed his job involved some measure of independence, and who had complained at times of the influence of corporate control over news content. Not so Gibson, who hawks sponsors’ products on GMA just as much as future CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric does on NBC’s Today show.

To wit, an oldie but goodie from WIMN’s archives: Back in 2002, I published an article on WIMN’s website critiquing Charles Gibson’s lack of journalistic integrity for shilling for corporate product placements on ABC’s Good Morning America. After today’s announcement that Charles Gibson was tapped to replace Elizabeth Vargas as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, I think it’s fitting to bring this piece out of the vault.

Who’s the real puppet?
“Synergy” turns sock puppets into reporters, and reporters into corporate puppets
Jennifer L. Pozner, WIMNOnline.org
May, 2002

It’s not every day Hollywood actresses like Sean Young make out with ratty sock puppets. But since anything goes at the swank celebrity parties that perennially dominate news and entertainment programs post-Oscars, Good Morning America’s March 27 footage of the wise-ass Pets.com mascot schmoozing and smooching the likes of Anna Nicole Smith and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as ABC’s sock-on-the-scene might have seemed like just another Oscars-night novelty.

If only this was a one-time gimmick. Far before and well after the “duppet” (part dog, part sock puppet, as the “spokesanimal” explained to Serious Newsman Charles Gibson) reported his exploits with tinsel town’s glamour set, ABC News viewers had frequent chances to hear from or about the famous sock. In fact, a Nexis database search found that “Pets.com,” a web site that sells pet supplies, came up 29 times in ABC News stories between November 1999 and August 2000.

The stories were plentiful and, at times, painful to watch. ABC devoted more than half a dozen news segments to the sock in January and February alone. First, Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer bemoaned their supposed inability to land an interview with the puppet (Gibson described Good Morning America’s quest as “hot pursuit of on of today’s most elusive celebrities”). Nightline and World News Now scooped GMA when they interviewed the sock in a tribute to cartoonist Charles Schulz but, undaunted, GMA followed with a video diary promising an “up close and personal look at the puppet.”

By late February, the sock deigned to drop by the morning show set for a chat with Charles and Diane. Before rolling yet more clips of Pets.com commercials, Gibson introduced the “top dog” as a creature with “no name, but he has a lot of fans. Who is he? The latest pop icon with a cult following.”

Though the specter of two news anchors conversing with an inanimate marketing tool might seem to be a new journalistic low, Sawyer — the subject of amorous advances from the flirtatious puppet, including a canine serenade of “Once, twice, three times a lady” – was overjoyed. “I’m very touched and feel somehow my life has peaked at this moment,” she gushed, tongue planted firmly in her cheek.

But ABC News coverage of the Pets.com mascot had yet to peak. The puppet was a featured commentator or source on several ABC News programs since those initial interviews, and clips of commercials featuring the sock puppet hawking pet products ran in a World News Now story on successful advertising campaigns in June. As recently as August, World News Now “reported” that people are “going whacko for Pets.com puppets,” and that viewers “can only get it at the Pets.com Web site for the time being.”

How did product placements for online marketers selling stuffed dogs come to be considered “newsworthy”? What would compel Diane Sawyer – even in jest – to declare that the high point of her life was being the object of a sock puppet’s musical desire? And how did a simple sock – even one with a high-powered ad budget behind it – manage to land such a high media profile on one news network?

Through “synergy,” the corporate media’s current buzzword for the process by which media conglomerates consolidate, buy up cross-holdings in broadcast, print and online outlets, and then use these outlets as platforms to promote one another, thereby boosting viewership, readership, and market reach for advertisers. “Synergy” is responsible for the appearance of overwhelming yet spontaneous popular interest in a certain subject – when in fact that popularity has been carefully crafted via advertising, corporate branding and, finally, multi-platform media attention (think CBS morning news anchor Bryant Gumbel hosting a prime-time wrap-up broadcast with the Survivor castaways immediately following the conclusion of the CBS reality series). And “synergy” is responsible for inane banter about and with a sock puppet taking up precious minutes of morning and evening news time that could be devoted to, say, anything that might possess some real news value…

In most cases, “synergy” is just code for “media monopoly,” and media monopolies generally consider news just a product, like soda or tampons or pet supplies. Which brings us back to the web site Pets.com, which – you guessed it – counts ABC’s parent company, Disney, as one of its investors.

Of course, Disney’s 5 percent stake in Pets.com was not disclosed in the majority of ABC News stories referencing or featuring the sock puppet or the corporation it was designed to promote. But was this just some kind of oversight? Don’t count on it. If the Pets.com puppet has become a “pop icon with a cult following,” as Gibson declared on-air, then it certainly hasn’t happened without the help of ABC News. This seems to have been part of the plan all along. Looking at the Pets.com press release that announced the company’s deal with ABC in January, you get the clear impression that the online retailer expected to be inserted into programming, including the news. The press release says that, among other things, Pets.com will “receive marketing and promotional support on the ABC, Inc. media properties.”

After the New York Times reported in late March that these types of tangled corporate relationships might pose problems in the future (for example, General Electric, NBC’s corporate parent, has a stake in over 40 different internet ventures), ABC agreed that disclosing such corporate ties would be wise, and pledged to take a “common sense” approach in the future.

Unfortunately, ABC seems to define a “common sense” approach to potential conflicts of interest as, “whenever we feel like it, we’ll let you know, but don’t hold your breath.” Following ABC’s “common sense” promise, as mentioned, most ABC News references to Pets.com (including the World News Now segment directing parents to the site for toys for their kids) did not note that the web site and the news network are both partly owned by Disney.

However, in the Good Morning America segment where the sock served as ABC News’ liaison to the Oscars stars, Gibson did acknowledge that he and the puppet both “work for the Disney Company,” and asked if the sock ever found himself “working with the mouse and the duck and stuff?” This scintillating dialogue followed:

SOCK PUPPET: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe I can get free tickets to Disney World.

GIBSON: You ready to go? After your big performance last night, you could just turn to the camera and say, ‘I’m ready to go to Disney World.’

SOCK PUPPET: I’m ready to go to Disney World.

So, there you have it: a not-so-veiled commercial for Disney World is what passes for “disclosure” in a media climate where profits are prioritized over than the line between news, entertainment and commerce, and where market share is more important than news judgement. In this media landscape, it’s disgusting – but hardly surprising – that Charles Gibson would find himself addressing questions to a sock on a chair with a puppeteer’s hand up his butt (the puppet’s butt, that is).

Next time you hear about the glories of media synergy, take some time to reflect on the similarities between network newscasters and the Pets.com mascot, both puppets meant to boost their parent companies’ bottom lines.

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