08.21.2006 08:00 AM
FCC investigates fake news from TV stations

Launching its promised investigation of fake TV news, the FCC has sent inquiry letters to 77 TV stations about their on-air presentation practices of outsider-produced video “news” releases.

The commission asked stations whether they followed FCC rules in properly labeling video handouts, most of which are produced to look like news by corporations or organizations with something to sell. Even the White House used videos disguised as news to promote its policy initiatives.

The FCC investigation is the result of a study released last April by the Center for Media and Democracy, which determined that 77 stations had aired video news releases without informing viewers of their sources. Owners of the named stations include CBS, Walt Disney’s ABC and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

FCC rules require stations to label video news releases in the same way as infomercials. That means viewers must be told in advance the video has been paid for by a sponsor and is an advertisement for a product or service.

Failure to properly label video news releases can result in fines of up to $32,500 per incident, and revocation of the broadcaster’s license.

Researchers found that some stations aired the videos as-is within their newscasts, while others used them as raw material and add their own reporting and video. Viewers are led to believe the segments are actual news stories.

“We think that the investigation is really important because otherwise stations won’t take seriously the disclosure laws that are already on the books,” the study’s co-author Diane Farsetta told The Washington Post. “The current practice is such a flagrant breach of the disclosure laws; we’re happy that it looks like the FCC is putting some teeth in them.”

“The public is misled by individuals who present themselves to be independent, unbiased experts or reporters, but are actually shills promoting a prepackaged corporate agenda,” FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told the Post. “The public has a legal right to know who seeks to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about the credibility of the information presented. Shoddy practices make it difficult for viewers to tell the difference between news and propaganda.”

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