Anyone who's ever looked at a package of cigarettes in the United States since 1965 is familiar with the Surgeon General's warning labels.
The tobacco industry did not want their product being labeled with, "Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy." However, Congress determined that the public interest was best served by ensuring that everyone purchasing cigarettes knew of their ill effects. Providing this information didn't end smoking (today, 22 percent of U.S. adults use cigarettes), but it helped balance years of Big Tobacco's deceptive PR by simply presenting the facts in an appropriate, immediate and universal way.
Congress is now engaged in a similar debate about labeling "fake news." On May 12, public relations and broadcasting industry representatives testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the Truth in Broadcasting Act (S 967). Their remarks were reminiscent of how the tobacco industry responded to the threat of cigarette labeling four decades ago.
The importance of this issue is painfully apparent to anyone familiar with the Armstrong Williams scandal and other cases of "pundit payola." Fake news is also partly responsible for numerous instances of media deception related to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The current debate centers on a particular type of fake news - prepackaged segments, called audio news releases (ANRs) when produced for radio, and video news releases (VNRs) when produced for television. Government agencies, corporations, industry groups and other large organizations have routinely used ANRs and VNRs since at least the 1980s; some claim VNRs date back to World War II-era newsreels. More recently, media consolidation and shrinking newsroom resources have resulted in broadcasters' increased reliance on such provided materials. Mounting concerns led the Government Accountability Office to rule in February 2005 that government-sponsored TV "news" reports are covert propaganda, unless their source is apparent to viewers.
Unfortunately, broadcasters commonly air ANRs or VNRs without disclosure. According to a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a quarter to a third of local news directors - by their own admission - disclose the source of VNRs occasionally, rarely or never. Other evidence suggests that non-disclosure may be an even bigger problem.
What Congress is now considering, thanks to increased public awareness and pressure, is how to ensure appropriate disclosure of government-funded "news."
The Truth in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and John Kerry (D-MA), is one of four Congressional measures recently proposed to deal with fake news. The Act is strong in that it covers ANRs as well as VNRs. It also clearly specifies what constitutes disclosure. For ANRs, a verbal announcement would be required. For VNRs, the phrase "Produced by the U.S. Government" would have to be displayed "conspicuously" throughout the video.
However, the Truth in Broadcasting Act also has serious shortcomings. To begin with, it only addresses government-sponsored ANRs and VNRs, even though private corporations are the main source of fake news. Moreover, the Act doesn't explicitly cover additional audio or video footage, called radio "actualities" or video "B-roll," which are usually provided along with the prepackaged segment. Although these materials are not broadcast-ready, their content and presentation are still determined by parties with an interest in how the institutions, events and issues they deal with are perceived.
The Center for Media and Democracy would have loved to send one of our staff members to the recent Senate hearing. After all, industry was well-represented, by the heads of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and one PR firm that produces VNRs. Watchdogs inside the government - the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Government Accountability Office - also testified, but no independent, public-interest perspective was represented.
Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran claimed that news broadcasters air VNRs "rarely" and neglect to disclose their source "even more rarely." Cochran pointed out that RTNDA's ethics code has called for "clear and complete disclosure" of provided materials since 1989 - but neglected to inform the committee that her Association does not monitor compliance with or enforce its code.
PRSA president Judith Phair fretted about the fate of the "free flow of information," should the Act pass. She expressed support for the "intent of the legislation," but said its "rigid requirements and specifications" would make using provided materials "so onerous and inappropriate" that broadcasters might forgo them altogether. Similar to Cochran, Phair presented PRSA's code of ethics as proof of the public relations industry's noble practices. (Once again, merely having an ethics code doesn't necessarily translate into compliance. In twelve years of reporting on PR firms' legal and ethical breaches, the Center for Media and Democracy has yet to run out of material.)
Doug Simon of the VNR-producing firm D S Simon Productions warned that the Act might result in federal agencies either decreasing efforts to inform the public, or turning to more deceptive practices, such as funneling VNRs through think tanks or other third parties. On a more philosophical level, Simon ominously stated that "increased government control over news broadcasts" is not a "hallmark of democracy."
Holding a Senate hearing on fake news is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction. However, Commerce Committee Co-chair Senator Ted Stevens - who expressed interest in knowing "who was behind the propaganda" declaring his home state of Alaska "pristine" and opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - appeared perhaps too eager to accommodate industry concerns.
Stevens repeatedly voiced support for delaying any further Congressional action until late July, after the end of the comment period on the FCC's Public Notice on VNRs. This despite assurances from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Acting General Counsel Austin Schlick that the issue before Congress and the FCC's Public Notice are like proverbial apples and oranges. (The FCC ensures broadcast licensees act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, while Congress is considering new disclosure requirements for broadcast materials sponsored by federal agencies.)
More seriously, Stevens seemed to accept at face value the industry representatives' alarmist rhetoric against the "long arm of the government" in the newsroom. He suggested that the Byrd amendment - recently passed by the Senate, but only in force during fiscal year 2005, which ends in September - might be a better legislative model than the Truth in Broadcasting Act. The problem with the Byrd amendment is that it calls for "a clear notification" of government sponsorship, without specifying what that means. It's also unclear whether the Byrd amendment covers ANRs, or just VNRs.
Nothing would suit the PR and broadcast industries better than vague and toothless legislation that effectively maintains the status quo. The reality is that the "long arm of the government" - and, to a greater extent, the long arm of corporations, industry groups and other large organizations - are already in the newsroom, shaping what the public sees, hears and reads.
Currently, only a handful of extreme situations trigger ANR and VNR disclosure requirements. These include when the broadcaster is paid to air them; when broadcasters deem their content to be "political or controversial" - a vague restriction that, in practice, requires public complaints to the FCC, after they've aired (and assumes viewers can identify such footage); or when government agencies admit that their goal in producing them is to persuade, rather than inform, the public.
Like their predecessors in the 1960s, members of Congress must summon the courage to act in the public interest, over industry opposition. Full disclosure should be required for all government-produced and -funded ANRs (including extra actualities) and VNRs (including extra B-roll). The FCC must also act to address the far more prevalent problem of privately-funded fake news, by requiring broadcasters to identify the source of all provided broadcast material.
Until those important steps are taken, the U.S. information environment will remain as hazy, and as polluting, as a smoke-filled room.
Learn more about fake news and what you can do, on our "No Fake News!" issue page. You can also help track the issue by becoming a SourceWatch volunteer contributor and developing articles on fake news.