Marty Bass found himself surrounded by a group of lithe, skirted cheerleaders for the Baltimore Ravens at the start of a football-frenzied show filmed at PSINet Stadium last Saturday night.
In the course of the program, the best way to tell the WJZ morning anchor apart from the others was the outfits. At one point, Bass sought to pump up a crowd of 300 hollering fans in the studio by saying, "It took us all of last season to get eight wins. We're jamming pretty good right now."
Along with WJZ weekend anchor Katie Leahan, Bass is the host of a weekly hourlong program on Channel 13 called "Report from the Ravenszone," a boisterous, fan-friendly affair that repeatedly stresses the talented play and positive community deeds of the Baltimore team's football players.
"It's hunting season in Maryland - let's go get some Browns," Leahan said last Saturday. Sports director John Buren appears as the host on a Sunday morning pre-game show that similarly touts the Ravens.
This is boosterism of the first rank - an attribute embraced by WJZ brass. But there's a handsome payoff. Despite drawing upon news staffers, the two shows are effectively infomercials, as they are completely paid for by the Ravens.
While by no means exclusive to WJZ - across town and across the nation, other news professionals are also making money from major sports teams - the practice raises real questions about the independence of the city's television news departments.
Although it would not confirm specific numbers, WJZ receives a six-figure annual payment for broadcasting the two shows and providing its on-air news figures, according to a Baltimore news professional familiar with the contract's general outlines. That same agreement granted the CBS-owned station the rights to air the team's exhibition games.
The Ravens, it shouldn't have to be said, are a major economic force in this region and provide fodder for plenty of hard news stories: the Glendening administration's struggle for tax dollars for the new stadium, the tiff between the Ravens and the Orioles over parking lots at Camden Yards, and the Ray Lewis murder trial earlier this year.
That creates a complicated dynamic for the station, historically Baltimore's leading source of TV news, but officials acknowledge no conflict in the station's dual role as paid booster and journalistic observer. The shows are "part of a collaborative effort," WJZ general manager Jay Newman says. "The station has consistently demonstrated an ability to balance positive coverage of the Ravens while still being critical, when appropriate."
Ravens senior vice president Dennis Mannion issued this statement: "The Ravens are pleased to be associated with WJZ, a television station known for its positive commitment to the Baltimore community."
Bass, an acquired taste who's an entertainer as much as anything else, is sort of the duckbilled-platypus of Baltimore journalists - it's not really clear whether he's a mammal or a bird.
But Leahan, a reporter and anchor who is new to the Ravens program this season, must find herself in a particularly ticklish position: she was among the reporters involved in covering Lewis' trial. The station deployed her extensively in February, although she was not WJZ's lead reporter on the case. (The murder charges against Lewis were eventually dropped; in exchange he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice.)
Bass and Leahan did not return a reporter's calls, while Buren declined to be interviewed.
"By having news people host or front the show, you're really damaging their credibility," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Here you are covering the team in an unbiased, open manner as reporters, and on the other hand, you're having them wear the hat as shills for the team." Even if specific stories aren't affected, he said, perceptions often are.
At the Ravens' complex at Owings Mills, Larry Rosen, an affable former radio reporter, is the team's new director of broadcasting. His crew creates Ravens shows with slick production values - the equal of many network counterparts - and some thrilling insider footage of players who wear microphones during the game.
Team members are caught in unguarded moments off the field, and head coach Brian Billick also offers his perspective on past and imminent matchups. Joel Kitay, the team's manager of broadcasting, Internet and video production, has pulled down two local Emmys for his work.
The show is part of an aggressive effort by the Modell family and the Ravens club to promote the team with familiar figures, Rosen said. "Marty, as a Baltimore institution, is madly in love with the show - and he brings that to what he does," Rosen said. "Katie thought it was a fun show - she will not bill herself as an Xs and Os person. She's a fan."
The problems isn't with the Ravens. It's with the role played by the news station, which retains input but not authority for the show.