Blogger Sued For $20 Million

Virginia DeBolt brings us the tale of Leslie Richards … who was approached by a firm representing itself as having producing documentaries for PBS. The firm, Vision Media Television, said it wanted to include Leslie’s business in an upcoming episode for “public television,” but she’d first have to put up $26,000.

Fortunately, that “pay to play” caveat caused Leslie to see caution flags. Reputable documentarians don’t ask interviewees to pay. People putting together “PR type” “faux news” shows do. This doesn’t make their pitch a “scam,” exactly, unless they’re implying that their shows will appear as news instead of paid advertising. It sounds like they were presenting the story as “news.”

But here’s what PBS has to say about that (emphasis in original text):

Q. Does PBS have any affiliation with programs produced by Vision Media Television (or VM Television)?
Q. I’ve been contacted by a TV producer who claims that he will feature my company in a national public television program in exchange for a fee. Is PBS aware of this?

A. A number of businesses have contacted PBS to ask us about our relationship with the producers of various television programs carrying titles such as Giving Back, Learning About, and The National Report Series. According to representatives of these businesses, the producers have offered to feature the representatives’ businesses in a television program and indicated that the program will be made available on national public television. Based upon representations made to them by the producers, the businesses were led to believe that the producers were associated with PBS and that PBS intended to distribute or otherwise endorsed their programming.

PBS wishes to clarify that it is not associated with and does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting for or otherwise have any business relationship with the following production companies: VM Television, Vision Media Television, Paradigm Media Group, PMG, PMGTV, Infinity Media Group, Roadshow Productions, Family Television Studios, United Media Communications Group, American Review TV, Business Break TV, Event Media TV, or Global Television Studios. PBS does not oversee the production or distribution of any programs associated with any of these companies.

If you are solicited by a production company that claims or implies an association with PBS, please notify PBS.

Moreover, a 2006 Business Journal article reported that “eight of the 11 entities listed by PBS are located in two suites at the same 370 W. Camino Gardens Blvd. address in Boca Raton.” Seven of the entities in the two offices follow: Family Television Studios, Global Television Studios, Infinity Media Group, Paradigm Media Group (PMG and PMGTV) and United Media Communications. Another, American Review TV, shared a phone line with PMG.

How far away is Vision Media Group (VM Television)? According to Google Maps, 2.2 miles.

Oh, and today there are 13 entities on the PBS list. The others: Business Break TV, Event Media TV and Roadshow Productions.

In 2004, an embarrassed Walter Cronkite was at the center of a similar pitch by WJMK, which also shares the Boco Raton address (but is not on the PBS complaint list). The firm used the same script Leslie describes in her post (emphasis added):

The first caller said he was a producer working on a PBS series with Morley
Safer, the CBS correspondent. CSPI, the nonprofit where [Jeff] Cronin works [director of communications for the Center for Science in the Public
Interest in Washington, D.C], had been selected to be featured on American Medical Review, the caller told him, and Cronin could put the program on the air by paying an underwriting fee.

I felt like I was on the receiving end of a scam,” Cronin told
Current. “I recognized it as totally bogus. . . . At one point,
when I raised concerns about paying for the privilege [of being featured in
a broadcast] and whether this would be appropriate for public TV, the producer
said, ‘I can assure you that Morley Safer wouldn’t lend his name
to anything that wasn’t above board.’”

[…]

Cronin relayed his suspicions to New York Times reporter Melody Peterson,
who wrote an expose of the company’s practices published in May. Walter
Cronkite, hired by WJMK a few months earlier to replace Safer as host of the
short filler programs, denounced the company and severed ties with it.

WJMK sued Cronkite in September for quitting as host, and Cronkite countersued for $25 million in November, charging the company used him “as a lure to solicit customers to fund advertorials and infomercials that masquerade
as objective news stories.” Cronkite asked the court to permanently enjoin WJMK from using his name or likeness “in any video or otherwise.”

In 2003, Television Week lamented the ethical broach that caught Cronkite “in a scheme to dress up drug advertising as hard news.”

In 2006, Michael Douglas sued Family Television Studios and Paradigm Media Group for misrepresentation.

The lawsuit said a May 13 letter by Edie Gershon of FTS offered Douglas a job hosting a television series called “Learning About….” The letter, attached as an exhibit to the suit, described FTS as “a family-owned and operated national television production company that produces primarily high-end educational television for national distribution on networks such as Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and public television.”

The lawsuit alleges, in reality, FTS produces commercial programming including infomercials and advertising.

Both Douglas and Cronkite reached out-of-court settlements.

It’s now 2008, so I have little sympathy for Hugh Downs (“the Emmy-Award winning news anchor of 2/20 hosts … the National Report Series for Public Television”). He should be ashamed! In the comments on Leslie’s post, someone writes:

They somehow employed Mr. Downs to film ONE intro clip & exit clip
that is very non-specific & generic in his language. They simply
paste the exact same intro & closing remarks onto your film, and
everyone’s films, with the pretense that it is some educational series.
I was told that the documentary I would appear in may be shown on CNN
between breaks on prime time shows with Lou Dobbs & Nancy Grace
& others.

That disclaimer on the PBS site, as well as the expose on similar pay-to-play advertorials, should validate Leslie’s rant. Right?

Wrong.

In an “official response” on Leslie’s blog, Dr. McMahon (bio – warning Flash heavy) continues to insist that the firm produces documentaries for “Public Television.” On his personal website, he claims that the Hugh Downs show “runs for peak and prime time on Public TV” and says that his company’s purpose is to produce “documentary programs for Public TV and CNN.”

Aside: According to this website, his PhD is in Christian Intellectual History from Whitefield Theological Seminary in Lakeland, FL. “All degree programs are designed for use in conjunction with church-related ministries. As a church-sponsored institution, WTS strives to maintain its independent educational status, free from both governmental interference and entanglement.” The seminary is not in the Department of Education database of accredited institutions.

He also writes, “Mr. Downs is a part of our series for Public Television” and that Vision Media Television had more than 400 clients in 2008. Let’s see, 400 x 26,000 …$10.4 million. Wow! I wanna get in this business. Note that nowhere on the website (horribly produced, by the way, it’s all images – no SEO here) does the company explicitly list where and when its “series” episodes run. Nor does it make it clear that these are not documentaries in the classical sense of the word but, instead, glorified B-roll.

Last month, Leslie reported on her blog that the Florida company is suing her for $20 million in damages.

I’m coming to believe that Florida is a horrible state for consumer protection. Last month I wrote Fighting Junk Faxes: Will You Join Me? about a Florida travel company that breaks the federal junk fax law AND makes questionable advertising claims. For example, the broadcast fax carries a far different price for a multi-location travel package than the company’s website. That company, Special T Travel, also settled a charge of “misrepresenting via an Internet advertisement” with the state of Georgia in 2002.

So, if you were Leslie, what would you do?

One thought on “Blogger Sued For $20 Million

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    The Sociology Of Comments « WiredPen

    August 14, 2008 at 10:47am

    […] August 2008 at 10:45 am (Blogs, Legal) This is a follow-up to the “blogger sued for $20 million” story. I’m fascinated by copy&paste comments, especially when the writer (a) […]

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