This goes back a ways. Between vacation for Passover and the net neutrality fight, this fell a bit by the wayside. But it is still an important issue.
Back on April 6, my friends over at Free Press, working with the Center for Media and Democracy, have issued a rather stunning report on how local television stations rebroadcast “video news releases” — press releases created by corporations — as real news. For example, a “news story” about a new drug treatment may, in fact, an advertisement created by the drug company and packaged to look like a news report.
As a mater of federal law, companies can use VNRS provided they identify them as such. So local station could say “Drug Co. has produced a new drug, and provided us with this report on how it works. Be aware that Drug Co. prepared the report and provided it to us for free in exchange for airing it.”
This distinguishes the situation here from the rather infamous use of government prepared VNRs in the news last year. Not only did the VNRs violate the rules on identifying the source of the material, but also potentially run afoul of laws preventing covert government propoganda. (Full disclosure, MAP tussled with the U.S. Office of NAtional Drug Control Policy on this issue a few years ago and won.
But we viewers get our backs up when we hear such disclosures. After years of viewing TV and listening to radio, audiences have, by and large, figured out that people who buy advertising time want to sell us things, and that this might influence the way they present things to us. So, long ago, back when Congress cared about protecting people from corporations rather than the other way around, Congress required that if a broadcasters airs something because it received something of value in exchange (even is it is just the free content of a “news” production), then the broadcaster must disclose. This is why, if you listen carefully after a game show that gives prizes, the announcer will say something like “Prizes provided by [name company], which provided them in exchange for these promotional statements.”
I stress this to make a point at the outset. The problem isn’t private companies making advertisements that look like news stories, or even distributing them for free to broadcasters. The problem happens when broadcasters air these infomercials as news without disclosing to anyone that they came from the companies selling the products or services. This isn’t about first amendment rights or education of reporters or any other red herring the supporters of VNRs through around. It’s about the failure of the broadcasters to disclose the critical fact that what you will see or hear is not the product of independent news research and reporting, but a product of a companies’ marketing department.
The Center for Media and Democracy Report found 77 station monitored over a 10 month period rebroadcast Video News Releases (VNRs) without disclosing the corporate source. Worse, according to the Report, the stations actively disguised the source of the VNR to make it appear as if the VNR was a locally produced news story.
Why would stations engage in these tactics? The CMD points to disturbing trends that will come as no surpirse to those who have followed the debate over media consolidation. The companies that own large numbers of tv stations continually struggle to cut costs and increase revenue. Combine these trends with the idea that news is simply a “product” similar to any other product rather than a responsibility required by law for users of the public airwaves holding their licenses “in the public interest,” an FCC that refuses to enforce existing law, and disdain for the general public, and presto! VNRs become transformed from a violation of federal law to a way to cut costs and develop additional “revenue streams.”
The CMD report suggests that stations started using VNRs to avoid the expense of producing real news. But recently, some stations have started to think bigger. Some broadcasters actively seek to raise revenue by including the products of companies in exchange for buying advertising or for new “intergation fees.” In other words, the news has officially gone up for sale.
So what can we do about it? First stop, the Federal Communications Commission. As I mentioned, this practice clearly violates existing law and should call into question the character of the licensees. The FCC has full power to commence an investigation, levy fines, revoke licenses, or create new rules to explcitly address broadcasters auctioning the news to the highest bidder.
Free Press subsequently hosted a blogger briefing on the issue, featuring FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstien as a speaker. Commissioner Adelstien has increasingly served as a voice of conscience on the Commission. He has repeatedly used his postion to publicly call for an investigation by the FCC into the allegations that record companies routinely pay radio broadcasters to play specific songs, a practice called payola. He recently dissented in part from the Commission’s indecency decisions because he felt the FCc had laid claim to broad an authority and chilled free speech.
On the call, Adelstien urged bloggers and others to take up the cry to the Commission and Congress to urge for an investigation into these matters. As a sitting Commissioner, Adelstien would not opine as to whether he thought the charges were true or what the Commission should do if it discovered they were. He also declined to say whether he believed there was a direct connection between media consolidation and the increasing use of VNRs, although he agreed that the Commission should investigate this aspect of the report when the Commission takes up the media ownership rules again (as soon as Robert McDowell, the pending fifth Commissioner and third Republican, gets confirmed by the Senate).
Free Press has launched a Petition drive. I think there are other possibilities that should be explored as well.
At the least, however, it lies with bloggers and others concerned with the integrity of the news to take up the cry. As one might imagine, the CMD report got only passing coverage from mainstream media sources and has once again vanished from view. If we expect action, we need to keep reminding the FCC, Congress and the news media that we are watching and we demand they take action to stop selling the news to the highest bidder.
So here I am getting this story out a month after the fact. Because we need to keep bringing it up until we get action. Because even with the importance of new issues like net neutrality, we must not forget that most Ameircans still get their news and information from radio and television. If we want to live in a democracy that can govern itself, we need to make sure that we and everyone else gets access to the news –or at least knows who is paying to persuade them.
Stay tuned . . .