Pervasive Fake News Documented, FCC Shrugs

Yesterday the Center for Media and Democracy released Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed. It tracks the use of some three dozen video news releases (VNRs) by television stations across America.
The use of VNRs is serious business. Companies and other special interests pay PR flacks (usually former journalists) to essentially produce generic television reports, which are then freely fed to TV stations nationwide.
Television reporters and news directors like VNRs because they’re easy fodder with which to fill a newscast, meaning fewer reporters to pay and less work needed from everyone involved. Companies like VNRs because they get free commercials masquerading as journalism.
For their part, the general position of TV-people has been that yes, VNRs are in circulation, but nobody uses them, or they just use portions of them very selectively and always responsibly. Busted: CMD’s report puts actual VNR footage side-by-side with what aired on stations everywhere, and there’s no denying the results.
While the VNRs discovered in the wild were initially fed with disclaimers at the beginning and end clearly identifying who paid for them, TV stations simply edited those out for broadcast. Many stations aired VNRs nearly verbatim. Others had a local reporter re-voice a piece, adding graphics along the way so as to make it look and sound like a locally-produced story. Similar things happen in the radio business, and newspapers have long been fans of the press release, but tee-vee news manages to find the new journalistic low in carelessness.
The Radio and Television News Directors Association’s own code of ethics regarding the use of VNRs clearly requires any journalist who uses PR footage to label it as such. 77 stations in markets large and small practice provably unethical journalism – and that’s just those this particular study uncovered. 36 video news releases represent less than 1% of all the VNRs produced yearly. That such limited spelunking came up with a wealth of muck suggests this is no isolated problem, but pervasive in the practice TV news at the local level.
When the CMD and Free Press folks went to Washington, D.C. to present this evidence to the FCC, as a former member of the corporate media I felt a little giddy. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in particular has been quite outspoken about the use of fake news. Last year the FCC issued a public notice “reminding” broadcasters of the laws requiring sponsorship disclosure; this was prompted by outcry that government-sponsored propaganda had found its way onto the airwaves. Back then, Jonathan Adelstein said, “we are putting broadcasters and others subject to our rules on notice that we intend to enforce our rules vigorously.” He also promised an FCC inquiry into fake news.
It’s been a year; CMD’s now done the FCC’s homework. During a conference call with Adelstein yesterday, I asked him (5:14, 2.5 MB) about the possibility of bringing that wrath down. He’d earlier made allusions to the most recent blowup of the radio payola scandal, during which threats of massive fines and license revocation hearings against stations that got paid to play certain songs have been bandied about. I consider fraudulent journalism to be a more serious offense.
Although Adelstein’s statement on Fake TV News calls it “stunning in scope” and demands immediate investigations up to and including the potential for criminal prosecutions, he told me the report only documents “isolated incidents.” While it does suggest the use of VNRs is pervasive, “we can’t kinda prove that, you know?” The FCC needs more evidence before substantive action can be taken: “continued vigilance” by groups like CMD and Free Press will be necessary. How much will be enough?
If Adelstein were Chairman, he’d commence license revocation hearings against the outed TV stations – to “put the scare into them, so that they know that if they got caught again, that their license would be yanked.” License revocation hearings shouldn’t be a symbolic tactic. Adelstein does not believe the current administration will move in that direction anyway.
I also inquired about how this report might impact the impending renewal of FCC proceedings to relax media ownership rules. Just within the last week Chairman Kevin Martin voiced support for doing away with the newspaper/TV cross-ownership rule, which prevents TV stations from buying the local newspaper, and vice versa (subject to waivers). Press releases go with VNRs like PB&J. Perhaps that push might be deflated?
Not really, said Adelstein. Again, barring the accumulation of more evidence, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to link fake news to ownership at this time, given the politically polarizing nature of the media ownership debate within the FCC itself. “If we drag that into the debate it makes it harder to do a real investigation because it, uh…it just makes it difficult.”
It took 10 months to produce Fake TV News, but it will apparently take more than this bombshell to make a dent at the FCC. I can’t blame Adelstein for his position: he’s the one Commissioner that gives a f*ck enough to actually speak to the issue. Congress to the rescue? Not likely. All the more reason to support independent media, and jam the blow-dries at will.