TALLAHASSEE, FL: News that a freelance TV reporter also provided broadcast PR services for the state government is intensifying the already heated debate over the proper separation between PR and journalism.
Mike Vasilinda, a 30-year veteran of the Tallahassee press corps, is the owner and one of two on-air reporters for Capitol News Service, which produces and feeds news reports to local Florida stations, as well as CNN.
He also owns Mike Vasilinda Productions, which creates PSAs and corporate videos for clients, including the Florida departments of Education and Transportation.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune disclosed his dual role last week; media comparisons to Armstrong Williams, the commentator paid $240,000 by the US Department of Education through a contract with Ketchum to promote partisan legislation, quickly followed.
Vasilinda strongly objected to the characterization.
"To compare us to Armstrong Williams is the most incredible leap of imagination that you could ever [take]," he told PRWeek. "I'm a journalist first and a businessman second."
But many of the journalists Vasilinda worked with disagreed. A CNN spokeswoman said via e-mail that the network didn't know of Vasilinda's video production company and would not use any reports by him until a review of his off-air business activities has been completed.
Several local Florida stations were aware of his dual role before it was reported by the Tribune, however, and said they did not see a conflict.
"I have known Mike for so long and have followed his reporting for many years," said Bill Bauman, president and GM of WESH-TV in Orlando. "I've never felt or suspected any kind of a conflict at all."
Bill Crane, an SVP with GCI and a former TV reporter who still contributes political analysis for a local NBC affiliate, said disclosure of a dual role is vital to gain the public's trust. "Even if you are beyond and above reproach, the reader or viewer won't know that," he said. "There's already enough concern about [media] bias. ... [Lack of disclosure] doesn't help it."
But Vasilinda insisted his work was no different than media outlets that take advertising from entities they report on.
"I don't understand how what I do is any different than TV stations and newspapers," he said.