When Bad Jokes Go Public

Here's a sticky issue, straight from the "It-Seemed-Funny-At-The-Time" files. It seems that California-based CBS News producer Bruce Rheins and his wife, actress Dawn Westlake, last year filed a trademark application for the name "Jesus Juice" to be used on bottles of wine. The couple made the application in January 2004, two months after pop star Michael Jackson was charged with allegations of child molestation.

"Jesus Juice" was allegedly what Jackson called wine in attempts to coax children into drinking it, according to charges aired in the trial. Last month, the couple provided artwork for the trademark that (mockingly in my opinion) portrayed Jackson as a Christ-like figure in a crucifixion pose.

The story came to our attention yesterday from a posting on the Newsbusters blog, under the headline: "CBS Producer Peddles 'Jesus Juice' Wine Label." It showed up today in the New York Daily News, courtesy of the "Rush and Molloy" gossip column. It's also mentioned on the Smoking Gun Web site.

I spoke to Rheins about it and he called the whole effort "a very bad attempt at a spoof." Rheins said he and his wife make their own wine and intended to produce a small number of "Jesus Juice" bottles to give to friends, some of whom covered the Jackson trial alongside of Rheins. He said there was never an intention to profit in any way from the effort.

When questioned about filing for the trademark, Rheins said the couple did so because "we didn't want somebody to get hold of it" and make money off of it when they could be traced as the creators. When I asked about reports that they had tried to solicit wineries in a partnership, he told me that his wife had made a "joking reference" on her Web site about seeking partners but they have "never approached any wineries" and if any had contacted them (none did), they would have turned them down.

Rheins wanted to make clear that he understands this to be a sensitive and serious issue for many and that he intended this to be a private matter between himself, his wife and their friends. Calling it a "stupid, bad attempt" at humor, Rheins added, "I understand that people are truly offended and I sincerely apologize for that."

I spoke with Linda Mason, senior vice president for standards and special projects for CBS News about this issue and she said this did not constitute a violation of CBS News standards since "there were no personal profits involved." Mason added, "in retrospect, he realizes it was terribly inappropriate."

Whether or not Rheins' apology is accepted is up to you but this is a difficult issue for Public Eye to address. Correspondents, producers, editors, camera operators and everyone else who works for CBS News or any news organization have private lives as well. They're even allowed to have senses of humor, whims, dumb ideas and practical jokes. While there are standards of behavior for nearly any profession, this particular story falls outside of them. As long as there was no attempt at making money off of a story being covered or use of CBS connections to profit and no clear conflict of interest that would bias the coverage, what employees do on their own time should not be controlled.

For some, Rheins' actions are offensive because they feel it to be an attack on their religious beliefs. Others may be just as offended if they discovered that another CBS producer took on a leading role in their Catholic Church parish, synagogue or even Mosque, feeling that to be an attack on their belief system and proof of some other bias at the network. I take Rheins at his word when he calls the incident a "stupid, bad attempt" at humor but even if you don't, ask yourself where such scrutiny ends.

This particular incident probably has received more attention than it really deserves because there is a good market for criticism of the MSM as a whole and CBS News in particular. It's certainly a reminder to us all of the impact our actions can have on the professions we work in. Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see in the newspaper isn't a bad rule of thumb – for reporters and politicians.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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