As longtime anchor Bob Hite stars in infomercial I ask: should retired journalists pitch products?
For 30 years, Bob Hite helped TV audiences digest the news of the day as one of the Tampa Bay area's most-watched local television newsmen.
But his latest TV job is something new: hosting a half-hour infomercial touting the merits of a Florida insurance company's Medicare Advantage plan.
The onetime anchor, who retired from Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 in 2007, plugs his decades of experience as a journalist in the "special broadcast" for Optimum Health Care, a locally based company that administers Medicare benefits.
"As a news anchor and photojournalist, I've spent over 40 years researching and reporting stories I felt were important to improve people's lives," Hite says early in the program. "Nothing is more important than helping people … to better understand the (Medicare) system."
Enrollment for the government health insurance program for seniors and disabled people began this month, and the competition is fierce among private companies offering the Medicare Advantage managed-care option.
Should a journalist -- even one who has been retired from local TV news for nearly four years -- leverage the credibility he developed as an objective, independent reporter to tout one insurance company for pay?
Hite sees no problem with his first on-camera infomercial since leaving WFLA. "I think it's clear to anyone what I'm doing; anyone who knows me from my days as a newsman knows I've been retired for years," he said, speaking by telephone from his home in Southwest Colorado. "The only products we take on are products I believe in. And I have to have total script control."
In a way, this is a step back to the future for TV news. As the form was taking off in the 1950s and 1960s, early journalists moved between the role of pitchmen and reporter easily, sometimes in the same broadcast. People such as Mike Wallace, who started as a talk show host, and former radio news announcer John Cameron Swayze either hosted commercials or, in Swayze's case, pitched products in commercials after leaving the network news business.
The blurring of lines between advertising and journalism still makes some TV news experts uneasy.
"It is really awkward and uncomfortable," said Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent now serving as executive director for Newslab, a training and research center based in Washington, D.C. "You can't tell (retired) people to pass up an opportunity. But transparency is key; if there's the potential for confusion in the viewers' mind, that's troubling."
Hite isn't alone. Former WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor Frank Robertson, who left the station in 2009 after nearly 21 years, appears in a different ad for Optimum, sitting behind what looks like an anchor desk trading lines with a woman who looks like a co-anchor.
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