FCC may fine stations over continuing faux newscasts

by Tom Siebert, Media Daily News

In a Center for Media and Democracy report released this week, the organization cited ongoing examples of news broadcasts airing corporate-sponsored video news releases as straight news--without divulging the source. And an FCC Commissioner saw red. He called for a quick resolution to ongoing investigations into the practice and fining guilty stations. But the association that reps VNR producers called such accusations unfounded, insisting that the practice did not violate FCC rules or regulations.

"Many broadcasters are apparently ignoring the FCC and their own ethics guidelines in running VNRs without disclosure," FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. "Since the industry is patently incapable of self-regulation, it's up to the FCC to enforce our disclosure rules."

Adelstein said the punishment for breaking the FCC rules on VNR nondisclosure is $35,000 per incident up to $350,000. He implied that he was particularly annoyed that stations under investigation were continuing the practice. "Some stations have developed such an ingrained pattern of running VNRs that even a direct investigation by the FCC isn't enough to snap them out of it," he said. "Maybe some have run so many red lights, it seems like the normal way to drive. It's time to start handing out citations."

The new CMD report is a follow-up to one it released last April, which detailed the use of VNRs without disclosing the involvement of special interests. That led to the FCC launching an investigation into 77 stations. The new report shows that airing undisclosed VNRs continues, even at eight of the stations currently under investigation.

The National Association of Broadcast Communicators, a group formed by VNR producers, released a statement yesterday disputing CMD's findings. It stated that none of the cases violated any FCC rules as they apply to sponsorship identification: controversial issues of public importance; political matters; matters in which stations receive payment or other consideration in exchange for broadcast.

The FCC decision could ultimately hinge on whether the commissioners consider global warming a matter of public importance. One recent claim by the CMD pertains to a VNR ridiculing global-warming claims that was produced by a PR lobbying firm that has ExxonMobil as a client.

In the conference call, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps noted that more than 80% of the stations alleged to have used VNRs are owned by major media conglomerates. "If this is true, it just renews my belief that the FCC needs to be supremely careful in its ongoing media ownership proceeding to make sure that the public interest still matters when it comes to what Americans watch on TV," he said.

The full report from the Center for Media and Democracy can be found at www.fakenews.org.

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