New FCC Filing: Broadcasters of Fake News Make False Claims about VNR study

Free Press and Center for Media and Democracy respond to smears from RTNDA and NABC

Groups urge FCC to continue investigation into corporate propaganda

In an October 16, 2006, letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy refuted spurious claims made by the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) and the National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC), a new consortium of broadcast PR firms, about the FCC's ongoing investigation into corporate-funded "fake news" on local TV stations.

The full rebuttal can be found at: http://www.prwatch.org/node/5282

The original report - "Fake News: Widespread and Undisclosed" - is available at: http://www.prwatch.org/fakenews/execsummary

A copy of the letter to the FCC follows:

October 16, 2006

Dear Mr. Chairman and Commissioners:

The purpose of this letter is to address allegations made in an October 5, 2006, filing with the Federal Communications Commission by Wiley Rein & Fielding, on behalf of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).

The RTNDA filing misrepresents and distorts the substance of the Center for Media and Democracy’s April 2006 report on video news releases (VNRs), “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed.” The enclosed document is a point-by-point rebuttal of the RTNDA filing (specifically, of the filing’s Attachment A).

The importance of issuing a rebuttal is demonstrated by the October 16, 2006, filing with Chairman Martin by Keller and Heckman, on behalf of the VNR firm consortium named the National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC). The NABC filing wrongly states that the RTNDA has “demonstrated that much of [CMD’s report] is inaccurate, misleading and unreliable.”

As you know, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) have long been concerned about the widespread and undisclosed use of the public airwaves to broadcast VNRs. The “Fake TV News” report documented 98 separate instances where TV stations aired VNRs or related satellite media tours. Not once did a TV station disclose to its news audience the name of the corporate client behind the sponsored segment.

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Such practices appear to be clear violations of the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules. In its April 2005 Public Notice, the Commission asserted, “Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them.” The Notice goes on to state that “whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing.” These passages contradict the NABC assertion that “the Commission’s actual rules regarding disclosure are based on the specific content of any given VNR.”

We applaud the Commission’s August 2006 decision to launch an investigation of the 77 TV stations found airing undisclosed VNRs and satellite media tours. As television remains the most popular news source in the United States, the routine infiltration of disguised public relations and marketing materials into newscasts must be fully investigated. In the months since the release of the “Fake TV News” report, more than 30,000 Americans have written the Commission, urging the agency to protect the public airwaves from such abuse by enforcing and strengthening VNR disclosure requirements.

The Commission’s ongoing investigation of undisclosed VNRs is not an intrusion upon First Amendment principles, as the RTNDA filing contends. Ensuring disclosure of broadcast materials provided by third parties is clearly within the Commission’s mandate. It should be noted that disclosure does not keep public relations firms from producing VNRs or TV stations from broadcasting them. What disclosure does is honor news audiences’ right to know who seeks to influence them.

The RTNDA needs to understand that their members’ use of the public airwaves is a privilege, not a right. When TV stations turn their backs on the public interest to air “fake news” provided by public relations firms, they defy the spirit and letter of their broadcast licenses.

Free Press and CMD have confidence that the Commission will enforce its sponsorship identification rules in a way that honors both newsrooms’ editorial independence and viewers’ right to know. To ensure that the Commission has the most accurate information available, our two organizations submit the following clarification and rebuttal of the RTNDA filing.

Sincerely,

Timothy Karr
Campaign Director
Free Press
www.freepress.net

Diane Farsetta
Senior Researcher
Center for Media and Democracy
www.prwatch.org

The Center for Media and Democracy (www.prwatch.org) is a nonprofit, public interest organization that strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism.

Free Press (www.freepress.net) is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media and involve the public in media policymaking. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal, affordable access to communications.