Brewing controversy

The commercialization of Linda Ellerbee

Linda Ellerbee answers critics of her radio and television commercials and explains why she has no apologies.

By Bob Thorp, staff writer

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 1989), p. 7.

Bob Garfield’s comments are reprinted with permission from the May 22, 1989, issue of Advertising Age. Copyright, Crain Communications, Inc., 1989.

Permission to use Barbara Lippert’s comments was granted by King Features, Inc. 

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses. 


Should journalists do commercials?

“No!” said a chorus of critics after Linda Ellerbee’s recent debut in Maxwell House coffee commercials. Ellerbee, a former network news reporter, host of TV magazine programs, and now a commentator for CNN, said she “knew there would be criticism” but had been surprised by “the nasty tone and the ignorance.”

Ellerbee is frank about her motive for doing the commercials: She needed money for her Lucky Duck Productions. But she got only $300,000, she said, not the $550,000 widely reported.

Whatever the amount, her critics would have her wake up and smell the ethical coffee.

“This is advertising news disguised as NBC news,” declared Bob Garfield in Advertising Age. “It is misleading. It is cheap. It is wrong.” He was one of the critics of the Maxwell House set, which he said was “such as you’d find on a network news magazine show, three of which were hosted over the years by one Linda Ellerbee.”

Garfield was troubled by “the problem that comes when news personalities begin redeeming their celebrity for cash and other valuable prizes. The lecture circuit and book lists are clogged with names of network correspondents past and present.”

For Garfield, “The issue is even more ambiguous when it comes to ex-news personalities.” If Walter Cronkite “donned an eye patch for a Hathaway shirt ad, I don’t think anybody would begrudge him his fee,” Garfield wrote. “But if he sat at an anchor desk with ‘important news about bladder control,’ you would hear howls. . . . Why? Because shilling for a product is one thing and trading on journalistic credentials is another.”

Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe, recalling Ellerbee as “the iconette of integrity in broadcast journalism,” was among the unhappy. “Now she sits there shilling for Maxwell House coffee. She can make fun of network news all she wants, but when’s the last time you saw Connie Chung hawking somebody else’s product . . . “

Barbara Lippert, who critiques advertising for Adweek, described herself as “such a fan of Linda Ellerbee” and recalled that Ellerbee’s “television essays regularly took on media hypocrisy.” Lippert asked: “If Ellerbee really needed the money, then why couldn’t she have insisted on a script that didn’t completely compromise her integrity and credibility as a newswoman by putting her in this fake news setting?”

It wasn’t a news set clone, Ellerbee tells questioners: The Maxwell House set, at her insistence, had been made to resemble a talk show set, not a news set. “I did not sit at an anchor desk,” she has emphasized.

Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times is one critic who did not view Ellerbee’s venture as black or white.

“Ellerbee is in that gray area occupied by quasi-journalists still thought of as full-time journalists and consulted about journalistic issues,” Rosenberg wrote. “No longer regularly employed by a news organization (as she once was by NBC and ABC), however, she’s ethically free to do what she wants.

“The problem is one of form . . . Ellerbee doing a commercial here sounds a great deal like Ellerbee doing a commentary (a la Paul Harvey juxtaposing the two on radio). And when commercial and commentary run in reasonably close proximity on CNN – as they sometimes do – there’s a real potential for confusion.”

Ellerbee has said she doesn’t think viewers were confused, only the critics.

But what about the money, and would she do commercials again?

“Given the same choices again, I would still do it,” she declared.

Other choices, she said, were to give up her production company, which had lost money, lose control of it by taking on venture capital, or accept a syndication company’s offer to do a daily talk show on TV.

Talk shows, Ellerbee said “are far more sleazy” than what she did.

Doing the commercial was “a far more honest” choice, she said.

But should journalists do commercials?

“I think journalists should not do commercials,” Ellerbee said. “People who cover the news should not do commercials.”

But isn’t she a journalist (she has described herself as a “writer”)? “I am not saying I am a journalist or that I’m not,” she replied. Let others decide that question, she said.

“We’re talking about perception,” she said, and perception is up to the viewer. “Do you think I could go out and cover a story about coffee? I’m still the same reporter I was.”