Sinclair Broadcast Group has been fined $36,000 by the FCC for “willfully and repeatedly” violating a ban on undisclosed news handouts by airing commentary by conservative pundit Armstrong Williams.
In the commentary, Williams promoted the Bush administration’s education plan “No Child Left Behind” after being paid $240,000 by the federal Department of Education. The FCC concluded that Williams and his firm violated commission rules by not disclosing to the audience that they had been paid to promote the program.
Williams was not subject to any FCC fines as he and his company are not broadcasters. But the commission fined two broadcasting companies, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sonshine Family Television, the owner of WPPH-TV in Bethlehem, PA, for airing programs distributed by Williams and his company without properly disclosing to viewers who had sponsored it.
Sinclair told the FCC that it had no idea that “anyone had received or been promised consideration for inclusion of material in the program that it aired.” However, the broadcaster did admit that nine of its stations aired commentary on the subject by Williams.
After the FCC announcement, news reports said Sinclair Broadcast Group doesn’t plan to pay the fine and will take the FCC to court.
Sonshine Family Television was fined $40,000 for airing a series of William’s programs.
Previous fines for fake news have involved video press kits promoting products from corporate interests. This Armstrong case highlights a similar ban on undisclosed paid political programming disguised as commentary.
The FCC’s two commissioners issued a statement calling the epidemic of fake news a “crisis” in American journalism.
“When pundits are paid to promote a corporate or government agenda while the public is never told, all commenters and journalists become suspect,” said commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps.
“When budget cuts in newsrooms lead broadcasters to substitute advertisements disguised by slick public relations firms as news instead of paying for their own work, viewers and listeners wonder what they can believe. When newsrooms are too strapped or sloppy to perform their due diligence and provide disclosure announcements, as required by law, it leads to a crisis of confidence.”
The FCC requires that radio or TV stations, as well as individuals, disclose on-air when they have received compensation to talk about a product or issue. The rules also require that an employee of a station, who has been paid for putting material on the air, report that to the station. The station is then required to disclose it on the air.