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Marquee Journalists Star in Ethics Debate

The Lincoln Memorial isn't the only attraction drawing big crowds in Washington this week. Film crews working on "Deep Impact," a movie about a comet on a collision course with Earth, have halted traffic and packed sidewalks with gawkers eager for a glimpse of Hollywood glamour.

And if they look closely, those with front-row seats may see more than a camera. "Deep Impact" features a news van adorned with the real-life logo of cable news channel MSNBC - per approval of parent firm NBC.

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Has journalism become too star-struck? Recently the appearance of more than a dozen Cable News Network journalists in the movie "Contact" launched a debate about the line between news and show business. The movie "Air Force One," which opens today, has the CNN logo in some scenes. (See review, page 12.)

If nothing else, this blurring of reporting and fiction raises questions about the marketing of a business that often claims a public trust - and about the proper behavior for professionals whose credibility is their most valuable asset.

"It's good for individual journalists and bad for the profession," says Robert Lichter, president of The Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It gradually is draining it of any sense of higher purpose, which journalists are quick to claim for themselves when they talk about their right to know," he says.

ABC, CBS, and NBC prohibit news personnel from appearing in motion pictures or TV comedies and dramas.

"We don't feel it's wise to create a blurring of the lines," says NBC spokeswoman Julia Moffett. She adds that the policy was always in place but was formalized after an appearance by "Today" show host Katie Couric on "Murphy Brown."

But that doesn't necessarily rule out use of movies as marketing tools to create brand identity. Thus NBC allowed "Deep Impact" makers to feature a news van with the MSNBC logo.

In the wake of "Contact" criticism, CNN President Tom Johnson assigned a committee to examine the issue and develop a policy for the use of the CNN logo and its journalists. While final rules have not emerged, expect to continue to see CNN adding to the reality Hollywood producers love to see in their movies.

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"CNN, in all likelihood, ... will occasionally allow its logo or its talk show hosts, or analysts, or actors, to play CNN parts," says CNN Spokesman Steve Haworth.

In fact, CNN talk show host Larry King plans to appear in eight upcoming movies. "The experience is a hoot, and the money is great," King writes in a column. "Sometimes we in the world of 'journalism' are guilty of taking ourselves much too seriously."

But journalists playing themselves crosses a line, according to journalism watchdogs and some journalists. CNN's senior White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer refused a request to appear in "Contact" and almost two dozen other films, saying he did not feel comfortable doing it. "I don't necessarily think the audience would be confused, I just see myself as a reporter," says Mr. Blitzer. But he has been a guest on "Murphy Brown," "The Letterman Show," and "The Tonight Show."

"Those were different, clearly fun, obviously different than playing a serious role as a journalist," Blitzer says.

Moreover, some analysts say that in a world where news organizations are in some cases owned by large entertainment firms, the relationships between arms of the business are too close for comfort. Warner Bros., for example, the producer of "Contact," is owned by Time Warner - as is CNN.

"TV news organizations ... are fighting a fragmenting marketplace," says Lichter. "But when you reduce a news organization to a product, you've reduced the role of news to one more commercial product."

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