McAdams On: VNRs and the Need to Know

March 25, 2011: Do people have a legal right to know where “news” comes from? That’s debatable, I suppose. Does the government have an obligation to assure the integrity of news? To a limited degree, yes. The Federal Communications Commission has disclosure rules regarding source material. If, for example, a TV station airs a news piece that incorporates a video news release from a major advertiser, it has to include an on-air identification of the source. That may seem pretty straight-forward; logical even. But VNRs have caused all manner of outcry from the watchdogs who keep an eye on the TV industry. Now, a First Amendment argument appears to be brewing over their use.

Fox-owned KMSP-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul has been notified the FCC intends to fine it $4,000 for running a VNR during a newscast without identifying the source. Where fines are involved, the FCC has to first notify a station of its intent so the violator can either explain why it shouldn’t be fined or pull empty pockets out of its trousers. 

Fox’s pockets are not empty, and it’s not well-known for rolling over. It fought the commission’s indecency censure for years, getting it dismissed last year by a federal court. The next stop is the U.S. Supreme Court, if the justices agree to hear the case. 

Similarly, the FCC and Fox have been going back and forth about the offending newscast for years. It occurred in June of 2006. Two watchdog agencies filed a complaint the following November. It seems the KMSP newscast included a fluff piece about convertibles and summertime, yada, yada. Only the piece was comprised of a VNR supplied by General Motors, one of the biggest TV advertisers in the country. It featured a GM executive and a car magazine hack discussing the auto manufacturer’s supposed turnaround. (This was before the black hole that was 2009.) It featured only three convertibles--all made by General Motors. 

KMSP didn’t run a sponsorship ID on the piece, it said, because the station received no compensation or consideration for running it--goodwill with GM notwithstanding. Goodwill is not covered in the FCC’s VNR rules, but overt brand exposure is. The commission determined that a cloying conversation between a car hack and a GM exec featuring only GM cars did not a news piece make--fluff or otherwise. It fined Fox $4,000. 

But “Alas,” said Fox. “We took no money nor consideration of any kind.” The broadcaster further said it considered the FCC’s investigation an “impermissible encroachment on the station’s editorial discretion,” according to the commission’s document. Fox charged the FCC with violating the station’s First Amendment free press guarantee, and potentially “chilling speech” because “broadcasters likely will self-censor and eschew perfectly legitimate speech, rather than expose themselves to government interference.” 

The FCC rejected the argument, but history has demonstrated how seriously the Fox takes the commission’s decisions. At the very least, KMSP forks over $4,000, the equivalent of a modest junket for a top advertiser. On a larger scale, the stage is set for a drawn-out legal battle over the FCC’s VNR rules. And thus the question remains: Do people have a legal right to know where news comes from?

Probably not.