FOX to Be Fined by FCC for Fake News; CMD's Complaint on "Video News Releases" Nets New Proposed Fines

FoxliesA FOX News station has been sent a notice of a proposed fine for airing fake news in the form of a "video news release" (VNR) without disclosing that the "news" segment featuring General Motors was produced to promote GM's cars.

As Jonathan Make reports in Communications Daily, the Federal Communications Commission has issued a notice of a proposed fine to FOX's Minneapolis affiliate for what amounted to a commercial for GM's convertibles masquerading as news. The VNR had been provided to the station by "FOX News Edge," which is described as "a news service for broadcast stations affiliated with the FOX Network."

In response to the FCC's investigation, which was initiated as a result of a complaint by the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press, FOX claimed it should not be subject to any fine because regulating this activity would "encroach" on its "editorial discretion." By editorial discretion, FOX seems to be indicating that it has a right to use its newscasts to promote products via "news" segments without any disclosure to viewers. FOX also tried to defend its actions by arguing that its affiliate did not receive any payment for airing the VNR and that the VNR was not of any public importance. It also argued that using the VNR was no different than relying on a "press release" without further disclosure.

The FCC defended its sponsorship identification rules, which it determined were violated by FOX, as "grounded in the principle that listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them." The FCC also noted that the VNR itself is a thing of value when given to a news station because of its production costs and savings. Accordingly, the FCC today announced an intent to fine the FOX affiliate that aired the VNR $4000.

The FCC also issued a similar notice to Access 1, a licensee of WMGM-TV in New Jersey, for airing a VNR promoting the use of the cold medicine Zicam, which had been produced for the product's maker, Matrixx Initiatives. The FCC noted that this VNR was specifically named in the joint complaint filed by CMD and Free Press.The stations have 15 days to pay the fines or respond to the notices issued by the FCC.

This is the first action on the complaint since 2007, when Comcast was fined $20,000 for airing VNRs. CMD told Communications Daily it is pleased the FCC is continuing to look into these matters, since the practice of using VNRs had not gone away.


What kind of deterrent is a fine for $4000?

I agree. $4000 is nothing to these broadcasters--it's way too low. They probably spent much more than that on the lawyers fighting the imposition of the fines.

Ted Garver and Lisa...You're exactly right. $4000 is only a "slap on the wrist" when what FOX Noise really needs is a kick in the chops. But it's better than no fine at all. Maybe FOX will get some bad press from it.

As someone who has produced VNRs for GM in the past, I can tell you the finished product is not intended to be aired in its entirety by any broadcast entity. But an oversight by the FOX affiliate shouldn't be made into a federal case. A $4000 fine, from this perspective, might actually be too high rather than too low.

Thanks for writing in, Bruce. I appreciate your sharing your perspective although I disagree. Even as someone who has loved GM cars my whole life, and in particular their many gorgeous convertibles, I think that stations should not be palming off well-produced VNRs as "news." They're ads, even if they are "informational" ads.

Also, it wasn't really just an oversight by an affiliate. It was one of many VNRs distributed by FOX's "news" group to fill the precious few minutes devoted to "news" in news broadcasts across the country with thinly disguised advertising.

In a thirty minute evening news show, there may be only about 20 minutes (if that) of content: about a third ends up being weather (because it's more important for people to know the temperature is two degrees higher or lower in neraby towns, ad nauseum); about a third is sports (because, well, it's the only good "news" around and it's popular, even if it has little consequence related to your government or your rights); and about a third is left for news (which is mostly crime reports). So, in the six or seven minutes of news--compared with about ten minutes of expressly identified advertising--the station chose to air more advertising as if it were news. That's misleading. It also saves the station money from having real reporters cover real news, such as what is actually happening at city hall or the school board or what their congressional delegation is actually doing, beyond just headlines.

So, I disagree that it's a minor thing in the grand scheme of things. But, I do think the fines are too low.


So you know the motives of the journalists at this station? How is it you gained this valuable insight into the motives of weekend newscast producers? I don't pretend to understand your business, how is it you know the inner workings of a television newsroom and its feed services?

the problem isn't the folks at the station, it's the people who run the network and make its policies. If I watch a "news" program and see only a smidgen of news here and there amid gobs of ads and hype, how much do I really need to know about the "inner workings" to feel that the audience deserves better?

I'm glad for your comment, as it illustrates that rich versus the rest of us isn't the only way to draw the lines in American society; there's also the hidden-behind versus those privileged to hide behind them.

My comment was not intended to claim knowledge of the "motives" of the on camera personalities or the producers of any particular show. My comment was intended to describe the typical format of the half-hour news broadcasts, obviously. As for the feed services, that is a topic that CMD has studied at great length, along with analyzing a multitude of VNRs used at stations across the country.

The fact is that the VNRs save the stations time and money by creating content they don't have to create themselves. I don't think making that observation counts as "pretending" to understand how feed services work or the inner dialogue of any particular producer.

If you think VNRs without disclosure are just fine as a "TV News person" then you perhaps ought to take a close look at the forfeiture notices issued by the FCC. They make the law quite clear. I stand by our complaints about these practices and my comments. Lisa