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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Here Is the Reality: Media Experts Say 'Bait Car' TV Show Is Not Real Journalism

Posted By and on Wed, Jan 12, 2011 at 3:15 PM

click to enlarge The Reality of Reality TV
  • The Reality of Reality TV

On truTV's 'Bait Car' Monday night, the San Francisco police busted alleged car thieves on camera: a 15-year-old kid who had never driven before, a homeless man who rifled around for loose change in the glove department, and a man who told the cops that he was already on felony probation for stealing a car.

In today's cover story, we wrote about the SFPD's first major foray into reality TV. With former Police Chief George Gascon's permission, the police teamed up with Hollywood-based KKI Productions to conduct a live car theft sting on camera. KKI paid the SFPD more than $200,000 in overtime and donated the two specially equipped bait cars to the department after the show.

But now that the show is profiting from airing the busts on TV, KKI is putting up a fight in court, refusing to turn over evidence that might help acquit the suspects. KKI claims it doesn't have to hand over footage subpoenaed by the defense attorneys, citing the state's shield law for journalists. The producers of the show claim they are documenting police during their routine duties, similar to a reporter taking notes during a ride-along with police.

Media experts aren't buying it. In addition to paying the subjects it is filming, KKI also agreed to allow the police department to preview all the episodes and veto any segments it doesn't want aired. 

"It's not an independent piece of journalism," says Al Tompkins, a broadcast TV specialist at the Poynter Institute, a school for reporters. "When you contract with the government, government starts telling you what to do. And if you're an arm of the government, you fall under subpoena just as the government would, just as police department records would. In effect, [those tapes] are police department records." 

In the end, San Francisco judges decided last week that provisions of KKI's own contract surrendered its shield law defense. 

Meanwhile, some of the footage is being aired on cable TV every Monday night. It seems as though not only defense attorneys are unamused by the SFPD's 15 minutes of fame on reality TV. One cop (who wasn't quoted in our story and asked his name not be used) wrote SF Weekly this morning: "Dumbest cop show ever. We make huge fun of it."

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly 

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Lauren Smiley

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