Former FCC general counsel: fake TV news must be disclosed

by Henry Geller and Diane Farsetta, Guerilla News Network

“Hurricane seasons for the next 20 years could be severe,” said the television news anchor. “But don’t blame global warming.”

What followed was a video “report” that was funded by ExxonMobil’s lobbying firm and produced by a PR firm. None of the video footage or information presented came from the station’s own reporting. If it had been disclosed as such, viewers would have known to question the take-home message—that “experts” agree there is no link between global warming and fiercer hurricanes. Instead, viewers were led to believe that the segment had been produced, vetted and reported by independent journalists.

The phenomenon is not restricted to WTOK-11 in Meridian, Miss., where this particular segment aired. Video news releases (VNRs), public relations videos designed to look like straightforward reporting, routinely infiltrate television newscasts, even in major markets like the Twin Cities. But viewers are rarely told the true source of such “news.”

Last month, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) released its second report on television stations’ use of VNRs. One Minneapolis/St. Paul station was on the list. In June, KMSP-9 aired an entire, uncut VNR from General Motors. Station anchor Karen Scullin even introduced the narrating publicist, as if he were a reporter. No disclosure was provided to viewers.

While the need to clearly label such materials might seem obvious, an association of broadcast news professionals—the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA)—recently joined the PR industry in fighting to keep the status quo: many VNRs and no disclosure required.

The VNR controversy is not new. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office declared undisclosed government VNRs to be illegal covert propaganda. In one infamous example, a publicist playing a reporter stated that the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act “gets an A-plus,” before signing off, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”

In early 2006, CMD released its first report on VNRs. It named 77 TV stations, reaching more than half of the U.S. viewing public, that aired VNRs as news. Nearly 90 percent of news segments cited were wholly derived from VNRs, lacking any independently gathered footage or information. No station named in the report—including KAAL-6 in Rochester, Minn.—told its viewers who had produced the segments involved.

Accordingly, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an investigation, sending letters of inquiry to the licensees of all 77 stations in August. At issue is whether undisclosed VNR broadcasts violate the agency’s sponsorship identification rules. The FCC has long stated—as it repeated in an April 2005 Public Notice on VNRs—that “listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them.”

It is shocking that RTNDA has joined the PR industry in condemning the FCC investigation. In recent filings, RTNDA claims that the investigation has had a “chilling effect” on newsrooms, and that any attempt to ensure VNR disclosure would impose a “particularly onerous” burden on stations. However, the only burden would be honesty (e.g., a simultaneous, on-screen message identifying the source of the video).

RTNDA argues that disclosure requirements would abridge stations’ First Amendment rights. But the aim of disclosure is not to suppress VNR usage, but to avoid the widespread deception of news audiences.

Congress and the courts have stressed that as fiduciaries given the free use of the public airwaves, broadcasters are obligated to operate in the public interest. Flagrantly deceptive practices are inconsistent with that obligation and can find no sanction in the First Amendment.

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that neither industry nor TV station codes of conduct—or even the supposedly “chilling” effect of an ongoing FCC investigation—will ensure viewers’ right to know. Of the 140 VNR broadcasts that CMD has documented in two reports, only two provided clear disclosure of the client behind the segment. (Four other broadcasts offered fleeting or ambiguous disclosures.)

Disclosure is particularly important, since the economic pressures and profit expectations placed on TV stations today have effectively transformed VNRs into an essential yet undeclared part of TV newsroom budgets. The least that can and should be done in these circumstances is to ensure the public is given the information necessary to evaluate what’s being presented as news. The FCC investigation is a first, necessary step toward that goal.

Henry Geller is former general counsel of the FCC and assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information. Diane Farsetta is the senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis. (

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey