From the one-for-the-good-guys-department: Bloomberg reports that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has ordered a probe of dozens of television stations, for airing advertisements as if they were vetted news reports. Martin’s stellar move to ferret out fake news offenders comes one month after the indefatigable folks at the Center for Media and Democracy issued a ten-month-in- the-making report into the propaganda puffery. From Bloomberg:

The April report by the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy found at least 77 stations, including 23 affiliates of Walt Disney Co.’s ABC networkand seven Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. stations, ignored an FCC warning to disclose sponsors. The maximum fine for each violation is $32,500, rising to $325,000 for multiple infractions, said FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based non-profit began their work after a March 2005 report in the New York Times about the prevalence of government-produced propaganda appearing as news. CMD executive director John Stauber said his team was able to capture only about 1% of the thousands of video news releases produced and aired as straight news—without disclaimers—over the last year by corporate and governmental PR firms. It ain’t like they had any help from the TV stations in tracking down these VNRs.

Nope, broadcasters love the free VNRs because then they can lay off the real live, professional journalists, and just hire monkeys to download the pre-packaged video releases, strip’em of disclaimers and present them as the station-produced news of the day. Oh, and pocket the spare change.

Some particularly scary factoids? From the report:

Collectively, these 77 stations reach more than half of the U.S. population. The VNRs and SMTs whose broadcast CMD documented were produced by three broadcast PR firms for 49 different clients, including General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One. In each case, these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting. In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients’ messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety.

Stauber is not naïve. He is not demanding that VNRs be outlawed, only that broadcast  news directors label them as the PR-propaganda they are. “PR firms produce this stuff and broadcasters literally just plagiarize it, airing the reports as their own. PR firms exist to have their work plagiarized—it’s like ‘Plagiarize me, please! But their work should not be aired as journalistic reports.”

This dirty secret of the broadcast news biz has been hard to prove since VNRs debuted in the late 1980’s. In fact, Radio and Television News Director honcho Barbara Cochran bragged at one point that VNR’s were “kind of like the Loch Ness monster,” in that people talked about them but no one could actually find them.

Stauber’s team managed to surreptitiously capture the 36 VNRs in the study by getting onto various PR firms’ e-alert mailings, which list what’s available each day for downloads…but those channels have dried up since CMD released their report. Stauber hopes to soon find another back channel into naughty newsrooms, to give the FCC more ammunition.

“What we need is one ethical TV producer to act as a whistleblower and feed us these VNRs, but that man or woman has not come forward yet.”

Any takers?

Meantime, to put some people power behind the FCC investigation, visit CMD’s partners over at Free Press, who’ve launched the “No Fake News” campaign.

Graphic from an ad for the broadcast PR firm D S Simon Productions

Jennifer Nix

Jennifer Nix