Reality Check

Should journalists sign a confidentiality agreement to attend a Survivor party? The Spike votes that idea off the table.

Star Stricken

The Spike is not the most discerning of television viewers. Other than The West Wing and 24, which are actually entertaining, the Spike is usually happy to flop on the couch for Everybody Loves Raymond reruns until it's time to shop the 10 o'clock news for something that's not crime, car wrecks or family tragedies. (Now, that's a chore in this market.)

Despite this very low threshold, the Spike has never succumbed to Survivor. Although the network would have us believe the show is watched by tens of millions of people every week, the Spike, in preparing this report, couldn't find anyone who actually does watch it. Or admits it, anyway.

Of course, the Spike tends to associate with journalists. The old kind. The kind who -- somewhere along career paths strewn with too many real victims and grieving parents and rip-off politicos -- morphed into the proverbial hard-bitten cynic.

So, the Spike is shaking its pointy little head over why any serious journalist would forfeit his or her credibility for a chance to be part of Survivor.

The Spike is not talking about Tammy Leitner here, the former East Valley Tribune cops reporter who, as we've heard so often in recent weeks (yawn), quit her reporting gig and got a spot on the new version of Survivor. Emphasis here on former reporter. So who cares what Tammy Leitner does?

No, the Spike is much more concerned about those members of our journalistic brethren who are willing to sign detailed confidentiality agreements just so they can go to a party Leitner is throwing Thursday night (February 28) to celebrate the première episode of Survivor: Marquesas, this season's series.

It seems Leitner, 29, sent out party invitations a couple weeks ago to her close Valley chums. The ones that landed in the mailboxes of "media friends," as she calls them, included four-page confidentiality agreements that would prohibit those special friends from revealing anything about anyone or anything having to do with the party, the show, the contestants, et al., for the next three years. The copy of the agreement the Spike got its hands on put the punishment for media violators at $50,000 plus attorneys' fees for each violation. (Non-media attendees don't have to sign anything to get in, so please call the Spike later and tell all.)

Don't reporters rail against such secret agreements when other people make them? Ethics, the Spike learned long ago, are not necessarily convenient.

It gets worse. This is not even some special advance viewing that reveals who actually wins the race, or whatever it is that happens on that show. This is just a party at a bar in Mesa where the "friends" get to watch the first episode at the same time millions of other American TV viewers are presumably watching it.

And you have to buy your own drinks. Unbelievable.

Former reporter Leitner stands to win something like $1 million, and if she wants to sign secret deals saying she won't blab anything about the show, that's her business.

But Leitner is clearly miffed that the Spike is writing this column. She'd asked her "media friends" to keep the whole thing secret. Whoops. Here's a news flash: Reporters are the biggest gossips in town. This is the stuff we live for.

That's why the cynical Spike wonders if this whole thing -- including the secret agreements -- isn't really some publicity stunt set up by the network. But Leitner would be a pretty good actor, if that's the case. She was definitely snippy when she declined to talk to the Spike about the party, the confidentiality agreements or the weirdness of this whole thing.

"I don't have anything to say to you," she huffed.

Aly Colón, director of ethics programs at The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center and think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, is unequivocal when it comes to the problems he sees with journalists signing these deals.

Ethics are ethics, he says, the same way sin is sin.

"This sort of situation is funny, obviously. But it also communicates something to the public at large regarding the values that the journalists who would sign such a document have," he says. "As a consequence of that, they are in effect saying the public has a right to know information that we believe is important -- unless we can get close to someone famous."

Strong words. But Colón, a veteran daily newspaperman who's well known for his work on minority issues and "undercovered communities," has developed strong opinions through experience.

"Promising not to reveal anything that is in the public interest simply puts the journalist in an untenable position in general," he notes. "While this information [about the TV show] probably is not of the nature of the Pentagon Papers, it doesn't matter the level of its importance; what matters is the principle that's at issue."

And he's never watched Survivor, either.

Veteran Phoenix media attorney Dan Barr (you guessed it: never seen the show) says he doubts the confidentiality agreements signed by reporters watching the same broadcast as millions of other people would be enforceable. "A court would laugh that out."

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