Side job a possible conflict of interest

TV/RADIO COLUMN

WBAL sports anchor has consulting firm

January 14, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Gerry Sandusky, the son of a former coach for the NFL's Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins, possesses a genial air and projects comfort in the public eye. He would seem a natural for the job he has held since 1988: sports anchor for WBAL-TV's news team.

It's his other job that doesn't seem so clean a fit. Away from the camera, Sandusky serves corporate executives and professionals who pay him to coach them on how best to communicate - how to speak to employees, how to make a sales pitch, and even how to manage the media.

Just take a look, as I did this week, at Sandusky's Web site, www.SanduskyGroup.com. There, Sandusky, now the station's sports director, offers potential clients a brief sketch of what he says is a trademarked model he calls "The Message Matrix." It suggests a blend of established reputation, appearance, body language, tone and words building together to form a person's intended point.

"Handling a media crisis takes skill - so does preventing a media interview or press conference from turning into a crisis," states the Sandusky Group Web site's "Media Coaching" page. Sandusky, the president and sole employee of the company, promises tips on how to "turn problems into opportunities." And he says he can help potential clients to "avoid getting trapped by difficult questions."

In the trade, people who care about ethics - journalists with professional pride - avoid any entanglement that might potentially get in the way of doing what it is they're paid to do: report the news. The same principle should apply to sports, too, as there are consequential stories out there to cover - not just games and trades but stadium deals, criminal incidents and even the relocation of major teams. Sandusky is so well-regarded by the station that he recently filled in for main news anchor Rod Daniels.

Here's what the ethics code of the Radio-Television News Directors Association advises: "Professional electronic journalists should not ... accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage [or] engage in activities that may compromise their integrity or independence."

Sandusky says the business is a small sideline that developed because nervous people kept approaching him for advice in advance of planned public speeches. He accepts no business from people in the world of sports, he says, and therefore skirts any possible conflicts of interest. And he says the firm's practice is not really all that big. He identifies Mercy Medical Center as his sole client for media coaching.

"Gerry is somebody who has a lot of background in dealing with media," says Dan Collins, a spokesman for Mercy. "He's a recognizable figure - someone who people want to listen to." Physicians and hospital officials have benefited from learning the logistics and demands of the typical television reporter, Collins says.

Two years ago, Sandusky says, he made sure his bosses approved of his work on the Sandusky Group. "The chances for conflict are minimal," says William Fine, general manager and president of WBAL-TV. "If there were to be a conflict, real or potential, Gerry would remove himself from that situation." Fine says he is confident that Sandusky's first loyalty will always be to the station.

But Sandusky is getting paid by companies other than his primary employer. His own list of clients includes Susquehanna Bank, United Way, a Towson accounting firm - you get the idea. Given the scandals that have enveloped major banks, charities and financial services firms, it's easy to conceive of situations in which WBAL's Jayne Miller or some other hard news reporter would be interviewing people from Baltimore-area companies who had been coached by him. He might have an interest in promoting the perspective of a corporate client from inside the newsroom. He may even believe, in his heart, in the client's worthiness.

Even in downplaying the significance of his work as a media consultant, Sandusky defends his choice to do so. "What I do in no way impedes a journalist's ability to get to the truth. If anything, it's easier," Sandusky says. "I teach the facilitation of how this medium works."

Such "facilitation" really means managing the media, particularly in crisis situations. And it is pervasive, according to one observer.

"As journalism has morphed into a cog in a great public relations machine, the fundamental relationship between journalists and their subjects has changed, turning the craft of the interview on its head," Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, writes in the most recent edition of the publication. "Where once journalists took the lead, prepared in depth for interviews, zeroed in on specifics, and connected the dots for their audience, those being questioned now lead the way, coached precisely on how to wrest control."

Sandusky distances himself from the content that appears on his Web site, saying he intends to start revising it later this week. And he dismisses ethical concerns because, he says, his consultant firm is so small. But the viability of his sideline practice shouldn't be the point. Its very existence suggests he doesn't understand his role as a journalist. As a sports announcer might say, the question is whether Sandusky really has his head in the game.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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