A new study being released today by the Center for Media and Democracy found at least 77 TV stations around the country have aired corporate-sponsored video news releases over the past 10 months. The report accuses the TV stations of actively disguising the content–which has been paid for by companies like General Motors, Panasonic and Pfizer–to make it appear to be their own reporting. In a broadcast exclusive we speak with the authors of the report and air examples of the video news releases. [includes rush transcript]
A new study being released today by the Center for Media and Democracy reveals that at least 77 TV stations around the country have been caught airing corporate-sponsored propaganda disguised as news news releases in the past 10 months. Companies funding the video news releases include General Motors, Intel and Pfizer.
The stations are scattered throughout 30 states and are affiliated with all of the major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. And many of the stations are owned by some of the country’s largest media companies including Clear Channel, News Corp, Viacom, the Tribune Company and Sinclair Broadcast.
The study by the Center for Media and Democracy is called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed" [ Read Report]. The authors of the report charge that these TV stations actively disguise the corporate-sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting.
Until now, television news directors have downplayed how often VNRs made it onto air. Last year Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, compared VNRs to the Loch Ness monster. She said "Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it."
Today we are going to spend the hour looking at how fake news is making its way onto the airwaves of local newscasts. We will speak with the authors of the report, as well as a consultant who has appeared in several video news releases [See Part II of DN’s Fake TV News Special] and with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein [See Part III of DN’s Fake TV News Special] who has said he was stunned by the findings of Fake TV News report.
But first we will air some examples of how video news releases are used.
Four weeks ago, the Fox affiliate in South Bend Indiana aired a video news release produced by the PR company Medialink for General Motors. The video was narrated by Medialink’s Andrew Schmertz. When the VNR aired on March 16, the local anchor introduced Andrew as if he were a Fox reporter.
- WSJV broadcast
That video news release aired on WSJV in South Bend Indiana. The station’s news director, Ed Kral, declined to join us on today’s program. He described it as an accident that the VNR aired as it did.
The same VNR aired on two other stations: KOSA Channel 7 in Odessa Texas and WWTV Channel 9 in Cadillac Michigan.
None of the three stations divulged to listeners that the feature was produced by Medialink and funded by General Motors. In fact, of the 87 VNR broadcasts documented in the Fake TV News study, not once did the TV station specifically disclose who funded the VNR to the news audience.
Medialink also produced a video news release about ethanol, funded by the company Siemans which supplies automation systems to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the country. Medialink sent a publicist named Kate Brookes to Iowa to act like a reporter covering the story.
Here is part of the original Video News Release that was distributed by Medialink in January.
- Video news release from Medialink
At least five stations then took that corporate-funded VNR and broadcasted it. KTNV Channel 13 in Las Vegas aired it on January 19th.
- Watch broadcast from KTNV
That video news release is one of the 36 VNRs highlighted in the new study by the Center for Media and Democracy called Fake TV News. The authors of the study, Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, join us now in Washington for this broadcast exclusive interview. Welcome to Democracy Now!
- Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. She is co-author of the report, "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed"
- Daniel Price, co-author of the Center for Media and Democracy’s report "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed."
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re going to spend the hour looking at how fake news is making its way onto the airwaves of local newscasts. We’ll speak with the authors of the report, as well as a consultant who has appeared in several video news releases. And we’ll talk to F.C.C. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who says he’s stunned by the findings of "Fake TV News" report.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But first, we will air some examples of how video news releases are used. Four weeks ago, the FOX affiliate in South Bend, Indiana, aired a video news release produced by the P.R. company Medialink for General Motors. The video was narrated by Medialink’s Andrew Schmertz. When the VNR aired on March 16, a local anchor introduced Schmertz as if he were a FOX reporter.
FOX ANCHOR: Many of you know computers have changed our lives in so many ways, from entertainment to transportation. They’ve even affected jobs. FOX’s Andrew Schmertz looks at one surprising career that has evolved along with the computer.
ANDREW SCHMERTZ: Are you looking for a great paying job where recruits are in high demand and there’s no chance of the work being sent overseas? Who isn’t, right? Well, pay attention next time you take your car into the dealer for maintenance or repair.
AMY GOODMAN: That video news release aired on WSJV in South Bend, Indiana. The station’s news director, Ed Kral, declined to join us on today’s program. He described it as an accident that the VNR aired as it did. The same VNR aired on two other stations: KOSA Channel 7 in Odessa, Texas, and WWTV Channel 9 in Cadillac, Michigan. None of the three stations divulged to viewers that the feature was produced by Medialink and funded by General Motors. In fact, of the 87 video news release broadcasts documented in the "Fake TV News" study, not once did the TV station specifically disclose who funded the VNR to the news audience.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Medialink also produced a video news release about ethanol, funded by the company Siemens, which supplies automation systems to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the country. Medialink sent a publicist named Kate Brookes to Iowa to act like a reporter covering the story. Here’s part of the original video news release that was distributed by Medialink in January.
KATE BROOKES: With this better market comes the need for greater efficiency at ethanol plants.
SPOKESPERSON: Automation technologies help the producers make ethanol more efficiently. As the demand for ethanol grows, the producers rely more and more on automation technologies to help them meet their goals in the industry.
AL JENTZ, Plant Manager, Amaizing Energy: The growth is phenomenal, and with the renewable fuel standard bill, we are looking at expanding this plant here hopefully within the next 12 to 18 months.
KATE BROOKES: To date there is more than a hundred ethanol plants here in the United States. But as the demand for renewable fuels continues to rise and as the technologies to help produce them continue to improve, it’s expected that number will grow, perhaps even double in the years ahead. I’m Kate Brookes.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was the video news release. At least five stations then took that corporate-funded VNR and broadcast it. KTNV Channel 13 in Las Vegas, aired it on January 19.
DAVID REISZ, Farmer: For our operations it’s like a dream come true, you know. We used to farm this ground where the plant sits, and it just makes a better market for our corn.
KATE BROOKES: To date there is more than a hundred ethanol plants here in the United States. But as the demand for renewable fuels continues to rise and as the technologies to help produce them continue to improve, it’s expected that number will grow, perhaps even double in the years ahead. I’m Kate Brookes.
AMY GOODMAN: That video news release is one of 36 VNRs highlighted in the new study by the Center for Media and Democracy. The report is called "Fake TV News." The authors of the study are Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price. They join us now in Washington for this broadcast exclusive. Welcome to Democracy Now!
DIANE FARSETTA: Thanks for having us.
DANIEL PRICE: Hi.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Diane and Daniel. Diane Farsetta, you’re the senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, co-author of this report. Explain how — well, the subtitle of your study is how "widespread and undisclosed" this is.
DIANE FARSETTA: Well, we would say, as you mentioned earlier, there were 36 different video news releases that we tracked, in terms of how the television news rooms used those. We found 77 different stations total that aired those VNRs or related canned interviews called satellite media tours, including stations in the largest market. We saw 13 stations in the ten largest media markets in the United States. We added up what percentage of the U.S. population is in the broadcast area of those markets. It’s something like 53% of the U.S. population. So that gives you a sense of how widespread it is. Undisclosed of the 98 different total broadcasts of fake news that we saw, not once did the station tell the viewing audience, 'This was funded by Siemens. This was funded by Pfizer.' And that’s what we see in terms — but that’s what we’re saying would be meaningful disclosure. We saw two instances of partial disclosure, but the clients were not named in those cases.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Diane, were you able to detect any trends or patterns in these VNRs? Were they being fed by the major networks to the local affiliates? Were they actually just being taken by the different affiliates? I was most surprised by the fact that you found quite a bit in the big cities, because you would normally think that the smaller cities, the TV stations that don’t have very much news staff, would be the ones more likely to run these kinds of prepackaged video releases.
DIANE FARSETTA: That’s right. And that also gives you a sense of how widespread the practice is, that even the most resource rich — you know, relatively resource rich stations are using them. In terms of patterns, I would say one thing that really stood out is that in more than one-third of the cases where we saw video news releases being broadcast, the entire prepackaged part, so video news releases contain a prepackaged ready-to-air portion and then usually extra video called b-roll. In more than one-third of the times that we saw video news releases being broadcast on these stations, they just put on the air in their local newscast, without disclosure, the entire prepackaged segment. And that was something that was pretty interesting and pretty unanticipated by myself and Daniel Price, looking at this — going into this study.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Price, let’s talk about the FOX report that we saw. Now, this was a case where they didn’t use their own reporter, taking the scripts from the corporation that pays for the VNR. They actually called the P.R. flack their reporter, by saying "FOX’s."
DANIEL PRICE: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain.
DANIEL PRICE: One of the things that they do to help pass off the story as their own journalism is when they don’t revoice it with their own reporter, they will introduce the voice of the original narrating publicist as if he or she were a reporter at the station. So, instead of saying "G.M.’s Andrew Schmertz" or "Medialink’s Andrew Schmertz," which would be the more truthful disclosure, they just say that basically this is "FOX’s Andrew Schmertz," or, in most cases, they’ll just say, 'Sonya Martin has the story.'
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you don’t have any indication that the companies or the public relations firms are actually paying for these releases. They are just trying to get them disseminated to get the particular perspective of the company on the issue involved with the product line that’s being promoted.
DANIEL PRICE: Right. Exactly. We have no evidence that there’s any financial compensation. However, it’s very important to note that the newsrooms are very cost-conscious, and every minute they get of someone else’s content that’s just ready to plug in is lots of money saved for them. So, some newscasts have four to six hours a day of local news airtime to fill and not enough people to fill it. So, VNRs are kind of like manna from heaven for them.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to a video news release about the prescription skin cream Mimyx, manufactured by Stiefel Laboratories.
PUBLICIST: More than 15 million Americans are diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, commonly referred to as eczema. The chronic inflammatory disease that affects 90% of patients within the first five years of their lives is characterized by red dry, itchy skin that rashes. This uncomfortable and unpleasant condition largely affects children but can also affect adults and often leads to sleep interruption due to the severity of the itch. While the cause of eczema is unknown, doctors say it can result from genetics, environmental factors or an over-reactive immune system. While many products to treat eczema are currently available, the F.D.A. has recently cleared a new approach in managing the signs and symptoms of eczema, called Mimyx cream.
SPOKESPERSON: Our goals in managing eczema are basically twofold. First of all, we want to relieve the signs and symptoms of the disease. And secondly, we want to try to rebuild the skin barrier that is usually compromised in individuals with eczema.
AMY GOODMAN: On December 19, 2005, WYTV Channel 13 in Youngstown, Ohio, ran a news segment based on this video news release. Viewers were never notified that the segment was paid for by the skin cream manufacturer, nor were viewers provided with any of the medical warnings included in the original V.N.R.
NEWSCASTER: The government has approved a new treatment for a chronic skin condition that usually begins in childhood but can stretch into adulthood. In Len Rome’s "Local Health," we’ll show you this new approach to eczema.
LEN ROME: If you have eczema, chances are the first symptoms showed up before the age of five. It affects 15 million Americans. Your skin develops a red dry, itchy rash. While the cause is unknown, doctors say it can simply run in the family, or you might have an overactive immune system. The new treatment is called Mimyx. It’s a prescription cream.
SPOKESPERSON: It has a dual function to both rebuild the skin barrier and to reduce the signs and symptoms of eczema.
AMY GOODMAN: That news segment ran on WYTV Channel 13 in Youngstown, Ohio. The station’s news director, Pat Livingston, declined to come on Democracy Now! today, but he defended the airing of the video news release. He said the station’s health reporter checked the claims of the report with local doctors.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Another station that aired portions of this V.N.R. was WCPO Channel 9 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The station’s news director, Bob Morford, also declined to come on the program, but he did issue a statement to Democracy Now! He wrote, "I understand and share concern about the use of video news releases. They can be misleading, given that they are often created at the behest and expense of a company an activist group or a governmental agency. Therefore, we treat them carefully. However, we do not refuse to use them for the same reason newspapers do not ignore or fail to read and use written press releases."
Bob Morford from WCPO in Cincinatti went on to say, "In the specific case to which you refer, [our] story ends with 'Right now, Mimyx is only available by prescription.' We feel this more than adequately covers the 'contraindications' concern. It’s the doctor’s job to know the problems and to warn the patient. It’s also a reasonable patient who asks the doctor about any possible side effects."
AMY GOODMAN: Diane Farsetta, can you talk about the use of this VNR as a health news report?
DIANE FARSETTA: Right. Well, I would say what’s important to know is that if this company, if Stiefel Laboratories were to put out just an advertisement, an out-and-out television advertisement, that that advertisement would need to include, when it was broadcast, risk or contraindication information. The F.D.A. regulations, as far as video news releases that promote a prescription drug or other regulated product, is that when it leaves the broadcast P.R. firm, it needs to include that risk information. But the ability of the F.D.A. to regulate the information that goes out ends at the newsroom door. So it’s concerning to hear that at least some stations are thinking that the fact that they flagged this kind of thing just as a prescription is sufficient disclosure, because, obviously, you have — and this gets into the difference between the print press release and a video news release, is that the entire thing is scripted, who is on, what they say. Oftentimes it’s rehearsed beforehand.
The entire job of a broadcast P.R. firm is to create a segment that leaves viewers with a message that the paying client wants them to have. And I would say just lastly, in addition, a print press release is generally, although sometimes they are copied and pasted, which is obviously also bad journalism, but the intent of a print press release is to give journalists a heads-up about something, to inform them about something, to be a starting point of a story, whereas a video news release is the ending point. It actually replaces the journalist.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in other words, what you are saying then is some of these cases, like with some of these prescription drug situations, that the news broadcast is actually providing an even more one-sided view than the video news release produced by the companies, in terms of the information it provides.
DIANE FARSETTA: That’s correct. And if you just look at some of the studies that have been done of the direct-to-consumer drug advertising, which the U.S. is only one of two countries that allows that, you’ll see that increasingly patients go the their doctors, asking for specific brand name, of course, medications, in a way that’s sort of instead of talking about their symptoms. So this is part of a larger problem in many different ways. But, certainly, it is a very one-sided and, I would say, irresponsible way to provide especially complex medical information.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, co-author with Daniel Price of the report "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed." When we come back from break, we’ll go to — well, who some have called the "Queen of VNRs."
JUAN GONZALEZ: As we continue our discussion about video news releases, we turn now to a VNR released last year about holiday gift ideas.
NARRATOR: Before you hit the stores this holiday season, technology experts warn some of the best gifts have the potential to go bad.
ROBIN RASKIN: One of the scariest examples is Apple’s new iPod Nano. It’s capable of video, and now there’s pornography all over the internet.
NARRATOR: It’s called iPorn, and hundreds of websites are selling it or offering it for free for the new video iPods.
CONCERNED MOTHER: Parents may not realize, you know, exactly what they are getting their kids.
NARRATOR: Another example is the new gaming system, Gizmondo.
ROBIN RASKIN: It has a G.P.S. system built in it so friends can find other friends and play with them. That means intruders can be there, too.
NARRATOR: And even track down your kids.
CONCERNED MOTHER: It’s very, very frightening.
NARRATOR: So what types of safe alternatives are parents turning to?
ROBIN RASKIN: I predict that one of the things parents are going to like are the retro games, and Coleco from Techno Source has 12 different arcade games bundled into one.
NARRATOR: Another comeback from the '80s is Pac-Man, but he's reinvented in the 25th anniversary game, and this time he talks.
PAC-MAN: Did someone say cake?
NARRATOR: You’ll also see more games with plotlines and Asian inspirations.
ROBIN RASKIN: One of the great things this year is the influence of Japanese artwork on games. In We Love Katamari, kids get to roll a ball around, picking up all sorts of whimsical items as they attempt to restore the universe.
NARRATOR: Raskin says after picking a great gift, you may also want to add accessories.
ROBIN RASKIN: Well, people are buying digital cameras, but they’re thinking about megabytes and megapixels, and they should be thinking about battery life. In a manufacturers test, we found that the Panasonic Oxyride, a brand-new battery with new technology, gets at least double the number of photos, digital still photos, compared to Panasonic’s original alkaline batteries.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now on the phone by Robin Raskin, who appeared in that video news release. Robin Raskin is the former editor-in-chief of the magazine Family PC She’s written extensively about technology and parenting and now appears in some video news releases. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Robin Raskin.
ROBIN RASKIN: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, you’re identified as a technology consultant by the local newscast. Who were you working for when you made this VNR?
ROBIN RASKIN: When I make a VNR, I’m working for — and I think you took from two different ones, but the people who — Panasonic and Namco, the people who are, you know, represented as examples of good technology. And so, you know, I have been pretty upfront actually in my VNR life, in telling both stations and [inaudible] people as I can exactly what I do, that I’m a technology expert and spokesperson, which was a very conscientious decision on my part after my last magazine closed, and I said I had to broaden my interests and do different things, really to support my family and to support and expand my career.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, when the news organizations, the local stations, play these, they almost never identify you as someone working for the companies. Do you have any concerns about how they are, in essence or in effect, misrepresenting the VNRs that they are getting?
ROBIN RASKIN: I do. I mean, I have so many concerns, I could write a book of concerns. You know, I actually — stepping back from my concerns for a moment, I don’t think there’s a line in that that would have been different, no matter who paid me, to do it, whether a station paid me or whether they paid me, but that’s actually beside the point. I think that the stations should call me a spokesperson, which I am. And I think that they should identify me as a spokesperson.
I don’t pretend to be a journalist in those instances. I don’t — I’m very careful not to do anything in my life now that would be perceived as journalism. I don’t write for my P.C. magazine, where I was the editor, anymore, because I don’t review products. When I do write about technology, it’s to educate, not to say this is the best, this is the worst. So I’m very careful. I do a lot of public speaking. I try to do what I do and what I made a very conscious effort to do, I tried to do it as best I can. And, yes, do I think there’s something in the report to be learned? Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Robin Raskin, I want to ask you about what are known as satellite media tours. I know you did a number of live interviews during newscasts, on behalf of Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source. Let’s play a clip of your appearance on KGUN Channel 9 in Tucson, Arizona.
KGUN ANCHOR 1: The latest and greatest high-tech gadgets are on many wish lists this coming Christmas.
KGUN ANCHOR 2: Yeah, I got a few myself. The only problem, how do you tell if they are good or not? Tech expert Robin Raskin joins us now with tips. So, you have your list, you’re checking it twice, all that kind of stuff?
ROBIN RASKIN: Yeah, and interesting this year, it wasn’t that there are so many bad products. It’s like the things that can happen with your good products are kind of the astounding, like I’m shocked this year. So, I’ll give you the best example. Everybody has one of these on their gift list for somebody?
KGUN ANCHOR 2: Oh, yeah, an iPod.
KGUN ANCHOR 1: Sure, iPod. I love them.
ROBIN RASKIN: Well, no sooner did they announce the iPod Nano, the video one, there was scores of iPorn everywhere.
KGUN ANCHOR 2: Oh, yuck!
ROBIN RASKIN: It’s become a pedophile’s playground, and so parents really need to know. If you’re going give your kids an iPod, you must go on and check it to make sure — this stuff is free. It’s on Apple iTunes. It’s not like they’re hiding it anywhere. So, it’s just a whole new thing to watch for.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip of an interview our guest, Robin Raskin, gave to KGUN Channel 9 in Tucson, Arizona. This new study from the Center for Media and Democracy criticized the interview, because viewers were never informed that you were being funded by the makers of the very products you were praising. Your response, Robin Raskin?
ROBIN RASKIN: Oh, you know, if I had my druthers, yes, the viewers would be informed. And I certainly do the best I can to inform the stations and, you know, as I’ve said before, make no bones about what I do. I use products as examples to educate viewers. And I would use those same products regardless. I’m very careful about how I choose my products. That said, do I wish the stations would do a better job of identifying? Absolutely.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I would like to follow up the issue of disclosure. On your own website, robinraskin.com, you’ve published a column called "The Best and the Worst of the Holidays 2005," and you’ve posted a video file of the related news releases. But you don’t appear to disclose the fact that you’re being paid by these companies to promote their items. The closest to a disclosure you come is a small disclaimer at the bottom of one page that reads, "These broadcasts are sponsored by their participants. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org."
ROBIN RASKIN: Right. Yes. And if you read my bio, it says I consult for various companies. And I consult in various ways. I do speaking engagements live. I do websites. I do white papers. I give my opinion on bringing products to market. So, I think that —- I think in some ways, and I won’t call it journalism, there is a message that is personality-driven. I’ll give you an example. Let’s take an Arthur Frommer. Certainly, you know, there are things that Arthur does that sort of are both sides of the line, but if you take examples like that, I think there’s a journal—- I’m not going to use the word "journalism" — I think there is a messaging that is a valid message, and I think, you know, you disclose it as best that you can. Could I do better? Possibly.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn now to the co-authors of the study, to Diane Farsetta and to Daniel Price, who are in the Washington studio. Diane, your response to Robin Raskin.
DIANE FARSETTA: Well, I guess I would start off by saying that in the material that we did see coming out of the broadcast P.R. firms, there was disclosure funding in the opening and closing slates. But I would say, you know, it’s a question of where — there’s a lot of places where responsibility lies. The main recommendation of our report is actually for any provided or sponsored video, there should be continuous on-screen disclosure, and that would deal with some of the concerns that are being raised here.
I would say one of the satellite media tours, not the one that you showed, but another one — Robin Raskin was actually the overlay, the text overlay — in January of this year called her a tech journalist. So, you know, again that’s where she was identified to the viewing audience actually as a journalist. And I think just lastly, one thing to point out about the video news release that you did play about the holiday gifts, the two products that Robin warned people about, the Apple iPod and the Gizmondo handheld gaming product, were products of competitors of the companies that had funded that segment. So, I would be interested in hearing Robin’s explanation of that.
ROBIN RASKIN: Well, thanks, Diane. First of all, I appreciate what you have done. And the irony in all of this is I don’t think you could have done your report unless people like myself disclosed what they were doing, because we disclose it with every release that we send out to a station, saying we’re available. We disclose it in many different ways throughout the process over and over again, so that there’s no mistake about it.
I don’t know that I would call the iPod and Gizmondo competitors of the other products I talk about. And actually, through my segments, all the time, I bring in other products who are — who can help — if the anchor were to ask me a question, I answer as honestly as I can, whether it’s about the product that’s being — that I’m a paid representative for or not. I’m an expert in technology, and I try and bring that expertise in a very fair uniform way to all the products that I talk about. So if I were there talking about these three, but you asked me about the iPod, you know, I would answer as honestly and as best I could. And that doesn’t change. As I said, that’s sort of separate to the argument of should there be ongoing disclosure.
I think there will be movement. I think that the industry is changing. I think you’re looking at not just television, but what’s happening on the internet, too. But I think there’s room for messaging on many different sides, as long as you are transparent and honest about what you do.
DIANE FARSETTA: Would you support our call for a continuous on-screen disclosure of video news-sponsored video news releases and satellite media tours?
ROBIN RASKIN: Oh, I fight so many other battles, I’m not sure I want to get in, you know, this one, but, yes, I think it makes a lot of sense, honestly. I do. The segments that I have been the happiest with are when I’ve actually worked hand in hand with a company; for example, when Microsoft and I worked together to create an internet safety message, when Verizon and I worked together to actually explain to people how to use voice over the internet voices services. And I worked on — worked with some of the paid telephones which I thought were a great answer to keep children on a phone plan. So I think that every instance when I’ve actually worked with a company, I am very proud of those segments.
And I’m also very proud of being a spokesperson in the technology industry. I think it’s a great industry that by and large tries to educate people, and television is one of those ways. I do think your report is important. And I do think that it should be paid attention to and, you know, I hope by coming on this program, I’m kind of letting another side of it be known. There is disclosure. There is every attempt made to make it an educational segment that shows products in the appropriate light. And that’s where I feel like my part of the job comes in.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I would like to ask Daniel Price, Barbara Cochran, the head of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has said in the past that this whole issue of video news releases is akin to the Loch Ness monster, that it’s more hyped than real. Your response, after finishing this report, as to whether the Loch Ness monster is alive and breathing?
DANIEL PRICE: Well, we managed to find 98 of them without really looking that hard. It was very, very easy. We had just a small sample of video news releases to work from. We searched for a total of 88 of them, and out of those, 36 wound up getting used in newscasts deceptively, that’s without any form of disclosure whatsoever to viewers. So — and that’s 98 instances spread out over 36 video news releases. So, if that’s a Loch Ness monster then we’ve got a lot of them out there.
AMY GOODMAN: Robin Raskin, have you ever had a conversation with a host of a local newscast who identifies you as an internet mom or a technology expert or a producer of a program, and said "I really feel you should say, ’I’m a paid Pentagon’ — rather, ’I’m a paid Panasonic spokesperson’"?
ROBIN RASKIN: Not on-air discussions. But certainly — certainly it’s a subject that’s debated off the air. And, you know, after you — I mean, you know the people that you work with, and it’s a hotly debated subject. And I really think stations — you know, I’m not a station. I don’t want to get second-guessed what they are thinking, but I know that they have certain pressures and things that they have to do.
AMY GOODMAN: What if they said off the air, when you say, 'You should identify me for who I am. I'm representing a company. When I put down iPod, I’m representing its competitor.’
ROBIN RASKIN: You know, I think if I could sort of, you know, talk about the character of the conversations, we wrestle more with the fact of what’s the right thing to do. And nobody’s made a clear decision. So, it’s like, 'Jane, this has come up. You know, we're figuring out what to do.’ And as you know, some stations have said this segment is funded, and that’s absolutely, you know, fine and desirable, in my book. The [inaudible] is funded, and a number of stations, probably more and more are doing that. And, you know, as I said about the study, the study almost couldn’t have been done if there hadn’t been disclosure, because that’s how you find out these things are being done. This is a very publicly open thing that this is a funded segment.
AMY GOODMAN: But it’s not public on the newscasts. They don’t often identify you as being a paid representative of a company. But let me ask, we are talking about corporate VNRs. There’s already been a big expose on government VNRs. Have you ever done work for the government, in reading a transcript that one of the agencies has put out?
ROBIN RASKIN: I did — I served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee, and we did a report on internet safety. And I did a satellite media tour, not a VNR, where I spoke live to stations, but that’s pretty standard for them to, once they have a report, to have a spokesperson work to issue.
AMY GOODMAN: And were you identified as a government spokesperson?
ROBIN RASKIN: As a member of the committee, which I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Robin Raskin, I want to thank you very much for joining us, for talking about the work you do, making these video news releases. And Daniel Price, I want to thank you as well, co-author of the study for the Center for Media and Democracy. Diane Farsetta, I would like to ask you to stay. We will also be joined by a commissioner of the F.C.C. to hear what the F.C.C. is considering doing about the issue of disclosure in corporate and government VNRs.
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.