Based on the contributions of Clinton kaffeeklatschers, the going rate for the president's ear is about $50,000. So it stands to reason that the ear of the man who once had Reagan's ear would be available at a relative bargain. And yet executives of some of America's largest corporations -- Allied Signal, Apple Computer, and AT&T, to name a few at the top of the alphabet -- have shelled out up to $50,000 to appear on "World Business Review," a television and radio show hosted by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, now the chairman of Forbes magazine.
"WBR" presents itself as a "news magazine and panel discussion" show covering business matters. But, according to one Silicon Valley media consultant, it's nothing more than a glorified infomercial. A "WBR" producer, John Barnett, had approached the consultant about doing a segment on one of his clients and had assured him the show was a legitimate news program. "I thought, Jesus, this is great," the consultant says. "We just launched this company and here's this Washington bigwig who wants to do a story on us." Then, Barnett added a final catch sotto voce: "WBR" would require a $38,800 "underwriting fee."
The consultant passed, even though "WBR" claimed, in a distribution report included in its proposal, the potential to reach up to 750 million viewers worldwide (including 70 million potential households in Turkey -- 6 million more than the country's total population). The proposal also noted that reproducing the show's benefits would normally cost "well over $200,000."
One company that bought the "WBR" pitch, Nissan Motor Corp. USA, paid more than $30,000 for its CEO to appear on the show, according to public affairs manager Kurt von Zumwalt, who says Nissan was lured by the show's "audience of influentials," and the cachet of "Caspar Weinberger's name."
In December 1995, prior to the show's launch, Weinberger told the Washington Post he was unaware that the program's producers planned to charge the show's guests and said, "I would not want that to be done." But according to his assistant, Kay Leisz, Weinberger now says he was misquoted in the Post and that he is perfectly happy with the show's format.
Weinberger's co-host, former NBC correspondent and University of Georgia journalism professor David Hazinski, admits he's uncomfortable with the "revenue structure," but he defends the show: "Is it an advertisement? Yes and no. We have guests that will never go on '60 Minutes' or 'Nightline.' They're afraid of getting grilled. This is a business-friendly format. I think that's fine, as long as folks know it."
But do they? The show does not run a disclaimer clueing viewers in to its funding sources -- opting instead to discreetly name underwriters in the closing credits -- and has failed to notify at least one public broadcasting satellite service, the Central Educational Network, of its underwriting format. (Barnett did not return Mother Jones' phone calls.)
Produced by the Boca Raton, Fla.-based Multi-Media Productions, and filmed by Atlantic Video (part of convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's media empire), the show also distributes misleading marketing materials. A list acquired by Mother Jones names carrier TV and radio stations, including several, like New York's WFUV-FM, that had never heard of "WBR."
Multi-Media has also claimed affiliation with National Public Radio, despite a "cease and desist" order from NPR, according to NPR spokeswoman Siriol Evans. (Until recently, the show's Web site still claimed "WBR" is "uplinked" to NPR.)
So who is the "WBR" audience? In the U.S., the show is carried mainly by small independent public stations that often don't track ratings, like KWSU-TV in Pullman, Wash. (pop. 23,478), and by quirky cable channels like Mind Extension University.
And why would executives from major corporations work "WBR" into their busy schedules? Well, not only does Weinberger maintain clout in Washington, but he's the chairman of Forbes, the most influential business magazine in the country. Executives must figure that playing nice with Cap the Knife is worth any price.
Jeffery is an associate editor at Harper's Magazine.