Bill Hoffman, the general manager of WFTV-Channel 9, got an interesting call back in March. It was from guy named Frank Torelli, an investigative reporter with a website called Rip-off Report.com (www.badbusinessbureau.com). Torelli had some questions about the station's philanthropic endeavor, 9 Family Connection. In particular, he was interested in the fact that Trans Continental Entertainment Group Inc. -- Lou Pearlman's conglomerate -- is a 9 Family Connection sponsor to the tune of $140,000 a year.
Hoffman was open and forthcoming about 9 Family Connection, who sponsors it and why. It's a way for local companies to get their name out there as community do-gooders, he said. He was adamant about the wall between marketing and news coverage, calling it the station's "separation between church and state."
Torelli saw something else in the sponsorship: a way for a local company very much in need of an image boost these days to buy favorable coverage on one of Orlando's most prominent media outlets. He's written reams about the legal and ethical troubles rocking Pearlman's world, and has been following very closely Trans Continental's run-in (in the form of the Wilhelmina Scouting Network) with the state attorney general's office.
All this is known because Torelli taped the conversation and subsequently posted it on the Rip-Off Report website (where it resides to this day, at least until WFTV's lawyers decide whether or not to muscle Torelli into taking it down. More on that later.) That's where things get sticky.
Hoffman says he thought Torelli was just a viewer interested in 9 Family Connection, or possibly a philanthropist wanting to contribute. He didn't know he was being taped. "It was illegally obtained," Hoffman says of the conversation.
Torelli admits that he wasn't exactly forthcoming about the reason for the call, at least not with Hoffman. And he never mentioned he was taping. "I countered by telling him I fulfilled my obligation by telling the receptionist, if there was an obligation at all, and then asked him if knowing I was a reporter would have changed his answers," he replied in an e-mail. "He said, 'No,' so I told him, 'No harm, no foul.'"
All of which would be an ethical pissing match of little interest to anybody outside the Columbia Journalism Review if it weren't for some of the issues raised by the tape.
There's the fact that WFTV took down unflattering stories about Trans Continental from its website, and at least temporarily called its investigative reporter off the story. And that WFTV took the word of Trans Continental management that the company was legally and ethically above board, instead of consulting a less biased source: the attorney general's office, for example.
These issues are clearly spelled out by Hoffman on the tape, which, for research purposes only, I highly recommend you check out while it's still available. But I'm not going to quote directly from said recording because its legal status is very much in dispute. Torelli thinks he is protected because he made the call from Arizona, where he works; in that state, only one party has to be aware that a conversation is being recorded to make it legal. Florida law says both parties have to be aware of and consent to taping. But this was an interstate call, so federal law applies. WFTV's lawyers are threatening Torelli with wiretapping charges if he doesn't take the recording down. Then again, suing a website is often like trying to bottle a cloud, so maybe they won't bother.
It's an Internet-age tap dance. God bless the Internet.
Instead, I talked to Hoffman directly, who confirms much of what is on the tape. Let him explain.
While it's true that WFTV took down several of reporter Todd Ulrich's stories on Trans Continental, it's also true that those stories were, as Hoffman says, not quite fresh.
"We did say to them `Trans Continental` we would pull information that was on the web. Frankly, it was old."
Ulrich's stories (which, by the way, are copied and pasted on Rip-Off Report.com) are all from 2002; the earliest was filed in February. They are quite likely the first stories on Wilhelmina (then called eModel, and later, Options Talent) in the Orlando area. He beat us. The Weekly's Options Talent story -- still available on the web -- is dated October 2002 (www.orlandoweekly.com/news/story.asp?id=3669).
According to Hoffman, it's standard operating procedure for WFTV to clean out its web archive. In other words, Trans Continental isn't enjoying any favors, he says. "You would never want a website that has stuff out there for two or three months." Of course not.
As for calling Ulrich off the story, yes, they did that too. But only after a meeting between Trans Continental execs and WFTV execs, during which Trans Continental's people assured WFTV that they had cleaned up their act. "We feel comfortable where we are at with these guys," Hoffman says.
If TCT screws up again in the future? Then the gloves are off, says Hoffman. "If there are new developments, we would be on it. We are a news organization."
Which is why the station aired a story earlier this month about possible credit-card fraud hitting Wilhelmina's online customers. Or at least Hoffman tells me the station aired the story (which ran in the Orlando Sentinel Sept. 10). I didn't see it, and it's not on their website.