The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on September 21 that it was fining Comcast Corp. $4,000 for its cable channel CN8's broadcast of fake TV news, a video news release (VNR) without disclosure.
The Comcast fine is the first-ever sanction for airing a VNR, a sponsored PR video that mimics the structure and style of television news reports. The fine is a direct result of Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) investigations, and of a joint complaint filed with the FCC by CMD and Free Press.
The FCC's action against Comcast is precedent setting. It firmly rejects the public relations industry's argument that no disclosure is needed if television stations are not paid to air VNRs. Hopefully, the FCC will soon address the nearly 140 other undisclosed VNR broadcasts that were documented in CMD's two reports, "Fake TV News" and "Still Not the News."
However, one aspect of the FCC's action is troubling. The VNR that CN8 aired and Comcast was fined for was remarkable -- but not unique -- in its extent of product promotion. The sleep aid "Nelson's Rescue Sleep" was shown and mentioned by name repeatedly.
Hopefully, in levying this fine, the FCC does not mean to imply that there is no need to disclose VNRs that show a product label only two or three times. To meet the FCC's own benchmark -- that "viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them," as it stated in its April 2005 Public Notice on VNRs -- all VNRs should be disclosed, whether they promote policies or products, and regardless of the level of overt promotion.
CMD and Free Press jointly released the following statement today, in response to the FCC action.
Diane Farsetta, CMD, (608) 260-9713
Craig Aaron, Free Press, (202) 265-1490, x 25
FCC Fines Comcast for Fake News
Groups call on agency to take action against hundreds of other stations airing video news releases without disclosure
WASHINGTON -- Today, in response to a complaint filed in 2006 by Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy, the Federal Communications Commission announced its intention to fine Comcast for airing a video news release (VNR) for "Nelson's Rescue Sleep" on its CN8 news channel without identifying the sponsor.
"We're pleased to see the FCC is finally waking up to the issue of fake news," said Craig Aaron, communications director of Free Press. "But the fine levied against Comcast is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Video news releases dressed up as real news were uncovered at more than 100 stations. We hope the FCC will soon fine those stations and issue clear guidelines to end the epidemic of fake news once and for all."
Comcast's CN8 news channel -- which airs in 20 TV markets, including New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. -- was caught by the Center for Media and Democracy airing at least four more VNRs without disclosure. However, today's announcement by the FCC contains no mention of those instances -- or KPTV-12, the broadcast station caught airing the exact same VNR without disclosure.
"The Commission's action against CN8 is precedent setting. It rejects the PR industry's argument that no disclosure is needed if the television station has not received direct payment to air a VNR," said Diane Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy, who co-authored the group's extensive investigation on fake news. "The Nelson's Rescue Sleep VNR was remarkable for its shameless product promotion. But the FCC must require disclosure in all cases when a VNR is used, whether it's for a new product or a government policy. Viewers have a right to know who's trying to persuade them."
See the FCC's announcement: http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-07-4005A1.doc
Read the FCC complaint filed by Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy: http://www.freepress.net/docs/final_vnr_letter_nov06.pdf
See the Nelson's Rescue Sleep VNR: http://www.prwatch.org/fakenews2/vnr54
Read the report Still Not the News: http://www.prwatch.org/fakenews2/execsummary
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 is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications. Learn more at www.freepress.net