On the Media: Fake news flourishes under the feds’ noses

An old actor I know would watch a plodding drama and growl, “If you watch closely, it almost moves.”

That’s the feeling I’m getting, taking a look at the federal government’s flimsy and fitful crackdown on news outlets and experts that fob off public relations drivel as news.


I raised the subject earlier this week in a column about Elizabeth Werner, the perky spokesmom who pitches toys during news broadcasts on local stations around the country. She is just one of a pack of paid touts presented to viewers as if they were independent experts.

But does anyone care? The public has gotten pitch-drunk from relentless salesmanship, on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and even their favorite sitcoms and reality shows. TV news producers have to fill airtime with staffs a fraction the size they were just a few years ago. Federal regulators speak loudly but carry a small stick — seldom invoking regulations that let them punish television outlets that don’t disclose paid promotions.

Performers like Werner may be relatively new, but the song remains the same as it’s been for years. A couple of public interest outfits demonstrated more than four years ago how dozens of TV stations flimflammed the public by presenting video news releases from advertisers as if they were unbiased expert testimonials.

Stories about the misuse of VNRs, as they’re known, became a big deal back then. One revealed how columnist and TV personality Armstrong Williams took payments from the Bush Education Department to cheerlead the No Child Left Behind education reform. Then the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) released a pair of 2006 studies showing that more than 100 local TV news stations had presented the insidious VNRs without telling viewers where they really came from.

The watchdog group cited General Motors, Intel, Pfizer, General Mills and Victoria’s Secret among the companies able to get the house message out to the mainstream using VNRs. News producers often did little or nothing to alter the corporate pitches, quietly sliding them into their regular newscasts, Wisconsin-based CMD told the Federal Communications Commission.

At least a couple of FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, embraced the complaint and a follow-up a few months later as a call to action. The commission proposed a $4,000 fine in 2007 against Comcast for airing a VNR on a regional cable channel, touting a sleep aid without a sponsorship notice to the public.

Adelstein cheered that original fine. He said he would “look forward to quick action on the many other pending video news release complaints.”

Three years later, Adelstein’s wait has not ended. The commissioner has moved on to a new job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the complaints brought by CMD and Free Press, a partner public interest group, have not been resolved, at least as far as anyone knows.

But it’s hard to tell exactly what the FCC has done on the matter. Eric Bash, associate bureau chief in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, told me he assumed the fail-to-disclose complaints could be pending. But rules prohibit discussing ongoing investigations. And the rules might also preclude discussing complaints that had been tossed out.

The commission a couple of years ago discussed whether to step up demands for public disclosure of so-called “embedded advertising.” It noted how commercial messages had been hidden inside entertainment (for instance, those TV plots driven by product lines) and news programs. But some producers — get this — protested that more rules would impede “artistic integrity,” even free speech. An update of the rules stalled.

Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission has made considerable noise about the need for celebrities and other endorsers to disclose their commercial alliances. The agency last year announced new guidelines that required disclosure of “material connections” (cash and gifts, for example) that would not be readily apparent to consumers.

The commission said the rules applied to A-list celebrities and “mommy bloggers” alike. That latter category encompasses online writers who take washing machines and microwaves, then rhapsodize about the products on their Internet sites.

The new rules got a ton of press. Bloggers pledged full transparency about their paid alliances. But an agency executive conceded that the FTC doesn’t have the staff to chase down violators and that “there’s a relatively small risk of getting caught.” The agency hopes the threat of public embarrassment will keep hucksters in check.

Judging from my reporting on toy woman Werner, I’m not so sure. Several PR professionals told me they see secretly paid promotions only growing. One executive told me that a multibillion-dollar technology firm he represents can’t wait to push its products via so-called “satellite media tours” such as the ones that have enriched Werner.

On the tours, companies pay an “expert,” who hypes a series of products — often electronics, toys, cars, or gardening products. The testimonials get beamed into news stations around America, where hometown anchors play along, almost never asking a critical question. Though federal regulations require the paid nature of the segments to be disclosed, news stations often don’t bother.

This is what we have come to on the public airwaves. Television stations won licenses from the FCC with promises to uphold a trust to serve the public interest. Critical in that trust is helping the audience understand where content comes from.

But today many viewers are slipping away to the Internet and DVDs or fast-forwarding past traditional commercials with video recorders. News staffs have been slashed dramatically. That leaves TV newsers scrambling to fill programs, too often with whatever stumbles over the doorstep.

The only antidote might be bringing more attention to broadcasters who produce fake news. The audience has had its fill of this sub rosa salesman, hasn’t it? Or has the news just sunk to meet our increasingly low expectations?

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