FCC tightens rules on fake news

In announcing additional $16,000 in fines against Comcast for airing undisclosed video news releases (VRN), the FCC last week knocked down a major defense that broadcasters have used to justify airing commercial PR material disguised as news.

In a new notice, the FCC states that “the VNR itself was the ‘valuable consideration’ provided to CN8,” Comcast’s regional news channel serving 12 states and the District of Columbia.

That statement is the first time that the commission has found that a VNR is a “valuable consideration” in itself. By making that determination, the commission debunked an argument by broadcasters that disclosure is only required when stations are paid to air VNRs, or when VNRs deal with controversial or political issues.

In making its finding, the FCC sided with an argument long advanced by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a nonpartisan public interest organization that last year investigated and exposed television stations for airing commercial content disguised a news.

Last month, the FCC issued its first fine ($4000) to Comcast for airing a promotional video for a sleep remedy in a news program without telling viewers the video was provided by the product’s manufacturer. Among its defenses, Comcast claimed it was OK because it had not been paid to air the video.

In the latest round of CN8 violations, the FCC cited four undisclosed VNRs for the Wheaties Fit to Win Challenge, Allstate Insurance, Trend Microsoftware and Bisquick’s 75th anniversary, all airing in fall of 2006.

CMD noted that TV newsrooms save thousands of dollars each minute when they air VNR footage instead of real news. Therefore, the group argued, stations that accept outside video are in effect accepting an in-kind contribution from that source.

In siding with the view that the VRN itself is a “valuable consideration,” FCC sought to remove any ambiguity about the practice, clarifying the rule for broadcast news producers.

The FCC’s campaign against “fake news” appears to be heating up with more fines to be issued. Complaints against the more than 100 other stations that CMD documented airing VNR without disclosure are still pending before the commission.