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2006-04-06

FCC Commissioner Says Broadcasting VNRs Without Disclosure May Violate Federal Law

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We speak with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein about the widespread use of corporate-funded video news releases by news stations without disclosure. Adelstein says, "There’s a federal law that requires that the public be informed about the source of who is behind what goes on broadcast media. Failure to disclose that to the public is a violation of federal law and in fact can be subject to criminal penalties of up to a year in jail." [includes rush transcript]

The Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press have announced they are filing formal complaints with the Federal Communications Commission over news stations airing corporate-funded video news releases. We speak with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein who calls the use of VNRs without disclosure "outrageous behavior and disgraceful journalism." The Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press have announced they are filing formal complaints with the Federal Communications Commission over news stations airing corporate funded video news releases.

In their * official complaint*, the groups write: "undisclosed VNRs have compromised local news programming in every market. This situation must be remedied immediately. The Commission should clarify and enforce its sponsorship identification rules and strongly penalize stations that air fake news."

The * letter* also suggests there are direct ties between consolidation of local TV stations and the apparent increase of the use of television VNRs.

Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy are asking the FCC determine whether station consolidation contributes directly to these types of violations before the Commission reconsiders rewriting the nation’s broadcast ownership rules.

We are joined now in Washington by FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

  • Jonathan Adelstein, a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press have announced they are filing formal complaints with the Federal Communications Commission over news stations airing corporate-funded video news releases. In their official complaint, the groups write, "Undisclosed VNRs have compromised local news programming in every market. This situation must be remedied immediately. The Commission should clarify and enforce its sponsorship identification rules and strongly penalize stations that air fake news."

AMY GOODMAN: The letter also suggests there are direct ties between consolidation of local TV stations and the apparent increase of the use of television VNRs. Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy are asking the F.C.C. to determine whether station consolidation contributes directly to these types of violations, before the Commission reconsiders rewriting the nation’s broadcast ownership rules.

We’re joined now in Washington, D.C. by F.C.C. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about what you want to see the F.C.C.’s role is in these corporate VNRs?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, the issue here isn’t just broadcasting ethics. Clearly, these are unethical when they are not being disclosed to the public. But further, there’s a federal law that requires that the public be informed about the source of who is behind what goes on broadcast media. Failure to disclose that to the public is a violation of federal law and, in fact, can be subject to criminal penalties of up to a year in jail.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, are you surprised by this report, in terms of the extent of how many of these VNRs are being used on a regular basis?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Frankly, I was surprised. I mean, I’m pessimistic to begin with. I mean, I thought this was a widespread problem, but I was stunned that these really enterprising public interest advocates can come up with such a vast array of evidence. It seems clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Given how hard it is for them to even find the few VNRs that they did and to track them, imagine how many VNRs are actually finding their way into the daily diet of the American public on the media without any disclosure, without any fairness to the people who think that this is a real news story but, in fact, are being subject to propaganda and shills, who are being laundered, essentially, through the news operations. It’s outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting to be doing this expose today with the latest news on Merck, the trial that has ended in the awarding of a man who had a heart attack as a result of taking Vioxx, getting millions of dollars, and how many of these are actually drug companies that are paying for these VNRs. Interestingly enough, in the VNRs themselves, the video news releases, they will list — because they have to, because of the F.D.A. — the side effects. But when the local newscast takes them, they actually sometimes slice off the part that warns you about the side effects, so the corporate VNR is more responsible than the news release that is the VNR.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, the irony of this all is that broadcasters are supposed to operate in the public interest. They have a legal obligation that their licenses are there, because they serve the needs of the viewers and the public. And here, they’re taking important information that the public needs, stripping it out, basically belying their obligation to the public, and at the same time, potentially violating federal law by not disclosing to the public that, in fact, the prescription drug company paid for that, essentially, an ad, even though it ran in the middle of a news program.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But I’d like to ask you also in terms of the fact that these companies are putting out these releases and that the laws that are being violated here are not getting nearly the kind of attention that, for instance, the obscenity problems on radio and television have got widespread coverage. But this practice of violating the law by these media companies in terms of VNRs has gotten virtually no attention.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the media companies that are not covering this are the same ones who are implicated by the evidence that’s been uncovered today. It would be very instructive to see if any of the networks run stories about this, if any of the local stations that misled their viewers will now take the time to tell their viewers, ’I’m sorry. We made a mistake. We ran propaganda in place of news, and we did it on such-and-such a date. We’re sorry. We won’t let it happen again.’

Frankly, I would be surprised if they did that. But if I were running a station, that would be the moral obligation I think I would have to my viewers. And I think all of them, under the laws of this land, under the public interest obligations, have a responsibility to both stop this from happening in the future and to apologize to their viewers for the outrageous behavior and the disgraceful journalism that has taken place on their broadcast outlets.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to F.C.C. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. I also want to ask you about government-sponsored video news releases. Last year, the New York Times revealed how the Bush administration has aggressively used prepackaged ready-to-serve news reports to promote its policies. The Times found at least 20 federal agencies, including the Pentagon and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments over the past four years. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production. This is one VNR produced by the State Department.

NARRATOR: The televised images from Baghdad prompted celebrations from Iraqi Americans all across the United States. They seemed to revel in the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, as much as they did in Baghdad. In suburban Detroit, hundreds of Iraqi Americans marched triumphantly through the streets. The community of Dearborn is home to America’s largest Arab community. On Warren Avenue people chanted, "No more Saddam," as they honked horns and waved Iraqi and American flags.

IRAQI AMERICAN 1: We love the United States! We love America! They help us!

IRAQI AMERICAN 2: Yes!

NARRATOR: In this Kansas City cafe, Iraqi Americans watch the historic events on TV.

IRAQI AMERICAN 3: I’m very, very happy. I said, thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A. I love Bush, I love U.S.A., because they do that for Iraqi people’s freedom.

NARRATOR: At the Arab American Center in San Jose, California:

IRAQI AMERICAN 4: To see him toppled and destroyed, it’s very gratifying. It’s very gratifying to all of the Iraqis.

NARRATOR: At this Mid-Eastern market in Denver, Colorado:

IRAQI AMERICAN 5: I never heard anybody who said he wants to see Saddam stay, so they all want Saddam to go.

NARRATOR: For Iraqis living in the U.S., the nearly quarter century-long nightmare in their homeland is now drawing closer to the end.

AMY GOODMAN: F.C.C. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, that was a VNR, a government video news release that aired as a news report on many local stations around the country. What about this? The government, as well as the corporate VNRs.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, the good news on that is that the Congress has since passed a law in the wake of some of these revelations that requires government-sponsored VNRs to be disclosed to the public throughout the airing of that particular segment. Now, that doesn’t mean that that happened in the past and, in fact, we at the F.C.C. have under investigation some of these previous incidents that have been brought to our attention. For example, the Armstrong Williams incident, where he, working for the Department of Education, went on the air to publicly support the No Child Left Behind program and was paid to do so without apparently disclosing it to the public. So we’re looking into some of the past cases.

Going forward, the government now is required to disclose, but one of the issues is that the corporations, while often disclosing this, are not being held to the same account, because if they do disclose it, it’s not getting put on the broadcast outlets as they’re required to do by law. And in some cases, the disclosure isn’t as clear as it needs to be from the corporations. So, all of these VNRs need to be disclosed to the public. And I’m afraid that it’s not happening now with regard to corporate VNRs, and it hasn’t happened in the past with regard to government VNRs.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Adelstein, how much do you have from your fellow commissioners at the F.C.C. to regulate this, to enforce this?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, again, the news here is that as a result of all the controversy last spring, in April the Commission unanimously on a bipartisan basis adopted a public notice saying that we were going to enforce the rules vigorously, explaining to the broadcasters what the rules were, because apparently they seemed to have forgotten. So, we reminded them gently in April, and guess what happened. All of these revelations that the Center for Media and Democracy has come up with happened after the F.C.C. warned the broadcasters to be on notice. So apparently these warnings went unheeded. Apparently, the only way to make them actually toe the line is to enforce the law, and that’s what I have committed to do, and that’s what all my fellow commissioners voted unanimously to do last April. And now it’s time for us to step up to the plate and do what it is that we said we would do.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re going to fine them?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, you know, we have to determine first that a violation occurred. We have to give them a chance to respond and to say whether or not they thought that they did disclose this or that somehow they weren’t obligated to do so. You know, the F.C.C. — innocent until proven guilty in this country. But if, in fact, we do determine that violations of the law occurred, we will fine them, and it’s also possible that we could launch revocation proceedings over their licenses. That’s available to us as a remedy under the law.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d be interested to see if this becomes a big topic of conversation at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, which always happens the month of April and is a highly attended convention, especially by the electronics industry. But I’d like ask you, Commissioner, on another issue, there have been all kinds of hearings in Congress in recent weeks. Just yesterday, there was a House subcommittee meeting and decision on legislation that would provide national franchises to telephone telecommunications companies that want to get into cable production. Your sense of how this legislation is going and what the role of the F.C.C. will be on these issues?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, the F.C.C. does whatever Congress tells us to do. There was a defeat of an amendment requiring a build-out by these new telephone companies that are getting into the video business. There is a defeat of an effort to require network neutrality by these providers. So, you know, if Congress doesn’t ask us to implement those provisions, we won’t do it. I guess if people are concerned, if they’re in a minority community, a low-income community, that they’re not going to get service, they need to let their members of Congress know that, because the F.C.C. will simply do what it is that the law tells us to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Diane Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy, where can people go to watch these corporate VNRs that have run as local news pieces on newscasts around the country?

DIANE FARSETTA: Our website is www.prwatch.org, and you can see the whole report there, including the video. And just quickly, I also want to point out that we’re working with the media reform group, Free Press, as was mentioned earlier. They are doing an online action at freepress.net which will allow people to complain to the F.C.C. to make sure —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there, Diane. I want to thank you for being with us.

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