Industry lobby balks at fake news investigation

by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

TV and radio newspeople have asked the FCC to stop investigating stations over use of video news releases and rescind the letters of inquiry to 77 stations, arguing that it is an unwarranted intrusion that is chilling newsgathering.

In a letter to the FCC, RTNDA outlined four key issues. It says that the inquiry was prompted by an inaccurate study of VNR use by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and that stations don't have to identify the source of VNR's if they have not been paid or promised something for their use, though RTNDA has counseled stations to identify outside sources of material.

"It is sound practice and reinforces the bond with viewers to let them know where material came from," says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. "But there is a difference between voluntary guidelines and government regulation."

RTNDA in its letter also says the FCC should have concluded a pending inquiry into VNR's before launching the enforcement investigation against the stations--the letter was filed as a comment in that inquiry--and says that investigation has had "a chilling effect on the dissemination of newsworthy information to the public," via VNRs.

RTNDA says it has clear guidelines for identifying materials from third-party sources and that "while it is perfectly permissible for private sector organizations to adopt guidelines for constitutionally protected communications, the First Amendment clearly restricts governmental constraints aimed at the same or similar objectives."

RTNDA says that over half of the 90 examples the study cites were not supported by video evidence, and that it found over 20 instances where stations cited "did make appropriate disclosures, used VNR material in stories critical of the companies or products behind the VNRS, edited out the corporate overtones, or [made it] obvious to viewers what interests were represented by the spokespeople used."

The FCC is asking stations for information on their airing corporate VNR's in news programming without identifying their sources and, in some cases, putting the station logos on them as though they were branded local content.

But the letters of inquiry are simply fact-finding tools, the FCC suggests. They ask questions rather than point fingers or draw conclusions. After gathering the information, the FCC may conclude that the stations have done nothing wrong.

The Madison, Wis.-based Center for Media & Democracy released a report, Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed, that identified a number of stations it said were airing corporate VNR's in news without identifying sources. It also included video clips of the VNR's that quickly became Daily Show fodder.

Unidentified corporate VNRs are not actually against FCC rules unless they are onpolitical or controversial topics, though RTNDA has advised stations do identify all outside material.

CMD had not provided its response to the RTNDA request at press time, but Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, which teamed with CMD on the study, said he stood by the study "one hundred percent."

He said RTNDA was trying to "cloak itself in the First Amendment. The real story is that local TV stations have clearly violated existing statutes against nondisclosure."

"We consider reproducing commercial propaganda over the public airwaves without disclosure to be a clear and controversial violation." We say otherwise," said Cochran.

"There are a lot of baseless accusations in what RTNDA lawyers put out, "says study co-author Diane Farsetta, senior researcher with CMD, "and we are working on a full refutation."

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