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How the FCC got its groove back

dfarsettas Icon Posted by Diane Farsetta

October 26th, 2007

It’s a weird feeling, having someone in power agree with you.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced its first-ever fines for fake TV news. The fines aren’t large — especially for a major corporation like Comcast — but they represent a major challenge for the public relations and broadcast industries. A federal regulator decided that fake news wasn’t OK, and that media companies might be shamed and fined if they air it without disclosure.

What we call “fake TV news” the public relations industry calls “video news releases,” or VNRs. They’re sponsored videos designed to look like television news reports, and pitched to TV newsrooms. One example is a health segment on how great GlaxoSmithKline’s new vaccine is, where the video was actually paid for by the pharmaceutical company and produced by its PR firm. Troubling stuff, given that TV remains the number one news source in the United States.

VNRs have been a focus of my research at the Center for Media and Democracy for more than two years now. When we started tracking how TV stations use VNRs, we were surprised at the blatant fakery going on. Less than 2% of VNR broadcasts carried clear disclosures of the sponsor. More than 85% of the time, the entire aired “news” segment came straight from the VNR package; no independently-gathered video or information had been added to balance or challenge the PR message.

We turned over our findings to the FCC, and, along with our colleagues at Free Press, filed formal complaints against the 112 TV stations that we caught. The five fines ($4,000 each) that the FCC proposed against Comcast were a direct result of our investigations. Our complaints against more than 100 other stations are pending.

While the Comcast fines are exciting, they’re only a first step. Comcast is appealing them, and the broadcast and PR industries are furiously lobbying the FCC. One PR executive told the trade publication PR Week that he is “hopeful” of getting the FCC to change their mind. If you’d rather get rid of fake news, you can contact the FCC here.

I’ve written more about the issue on CMD’s website, and you can watch VNRs and the newscasters who love them there, too. But I want to highlight another exciting move by the FCC: it proposed fines against the TV stations that aired “payola pundit” Armstrong Williams. Williams was a PR contractor for the U.S. Education Department, who frequently extolled the virtues of “No Child Left Behind” without revealing that he was being paid to do so.

My favorite part of the FCC’s actions in the Williams case (yes, I am a media geek) was the following, from a joint statement (PDF) by Commissioners Adelstein and Copps:

While some will try to turn this into a First Amendment issue, sponsorship identification in no way requires anyone to limit anything they communicate. On the contrary, it requires more speech, not less. The only reason it can be construed as limiting expression is because broadcasters and cable operators are too embarrassed to reveal who paid to produce or espouse material they are pretending is their own product. In fact, established ethical guidelines, which are routinely ignored, call for just such disclosure. The reticence to disclose, or to otherwise refrain from using material paid for by a sponsor, is not a restraint upon free expression.

True that. Broadcasters profit wildly from their free use of the public airwaves. As should be the case, they can air pretty much anything they want. But if they’re going to air something that looks like independent news or commentary, but is really bought and paid for, they have to ‘fess up.

Seems like a simple enough rule to me. Hopefully the FCC will stick by it.

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