Broadcasters' Coalition of the Shilling Objects to Fake News Fines

Do you remember when the Surgeon General's warning appeared on cigarette packs, and everyone stopped smoking? Or when nutritional information was added to food packaging, and everyone stopped eating sugary snacks? Neither do I.

Yet lawyers and lobbyists for the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) insist that mounting pressure to disclose fake news "already has begun to drastically chill speech in newsrooms across the country, inhibiting broadcasters and cablecasters from fully serving their viewers."

That claim is made in RTNDA's new filing (PDF) with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The broadcasters' group is urging the FCC to stop considering fines for undisclosed video news releases (VNRs). The FCC has proposed fines totaling $20,000 against Comcast, for its cable channel CN8 having aired five VNRs — public relations videos designed to look like news reports — without disclosure.

The FCC fines are an important first step in ensuring news viewers' right to know. But rather than roll up its metaphoric sleeves and address the impact of VNRs on television news, RTNDA is lobbying against any FCC action.

Other claims made in the RTNDA October 31 filing include:

  • VNRs that come into newsrooms via digital, satellite or other video feeds are "not, by definition, 'sponsored.'" In other words, it doesn't matter that General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline or the State Department paid public relations firms to produce, distribute and promote VNRs to newsrooms. What matters is that TV stations paid to access video feeds that, in addition to many other offerings, also include VNRs.
  • The segments aired by CN8 are "original stories about sleeping aids, health and fitness, life insurance, laptop computer security, and the anniversary of a popular baking mix." Actually, in each case, the aired segment was wholly derived from the VNR. CN8 did re-voice and slightly edit the VNRs — in one case, removing built-in disclosures — but did not add any independently-gathered video or information. (See for yourself, at the following links: the Nelson's Rescue Sleep VNR, General Mills / Wheaties VNR, Allstate Insurance VNR, Trend Micro Software VNR, and General Mills / Bisquick VNR.)
  • Simply adding on-screen labels along the lines of "video provided by X" to aired VNR footage would somehow make TV newsrooms "responsible for the motives and connections of their sources," would impinge upon "journalists' First Amendment rights," and would require a full-time staffer working "virtually around the clock."

Also noteworthy is the "coalition" that joined RTNDA in this latest filing. In a press release, RTNDA simply refers to these co-signatories as "media organizations."

RTNDA fails to mention how many coalition members own or are affiliated with TV stations currently under investigation for airing undisclosed VNRs. For example, Tribune Broadcasting Company owns nine stations under investigation by the FCC. Walt Disney Company owns or co-owns five stations under investigation. Gray Television and Raycom Media each own four stations under investigation. ABC has 29 affiliates and NBC ten affiliates under investigation. In short, it's not exactly an impartial group.

Oh, and the supposed "chilling effect" that followed the FCC's "dangerous first step toward government censorship of news programming"? Funny how we didn't notice that when we searched for more recent examples of VNR broadcasts.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.

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