And Now, The Fake News

In May, our former colleague Rick Kennedy wrote about the Center for Media and Democracy's report Fake TV News, in which the group blasted television networks and their affiliates for passing off paid-for news as The Real Thing--including, in one instance in February, our very own WFAA-Channel 8. Wrote Rick back then, "The spot, produced by DS Simon Productions in New York, was originally commissioned by a Spanish company to tout the wonders of its two diet supplements designed to relieve arthritis pain." WFAA was one of 77 stations across the country cited in the study, which gave the Belo-owned ABC affiliate some credit for adding some of its own reporting (and reporter, Janet St. James) to the story but insisted the station crossed the ethical line nonetheless.

Well, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in a letter dated only four days ago, the Federal Communications Commission is crossing the line by trying to get to the bottom of the video news release (or VNR) scandal, if that's what ya wanna call it. In the 28-page missive from two RTNDA attorneys, Kathleen Kirby and Lawrence Secrest III, the FCC's ostensibly trying to govern newsrooms by telling stations what they can and can't put on the air--if, that is, the FCC finds there's something wrong with TV station running press releases. (Little late, doncha think?)

According to the letter, the FCC's Enforcement Division, which I bet doesn't look as tough as it sounds, has sent Letters of Inquiry to all 77 stations mentioned in the Center for Media and Democracy's study, so that would include WFAA. The RTNDA missive says the FCC wants the stations to collect and turn over to the FCC "tapes and transcripts of newscasts, news outtakes, and VNRs; to answer detailed questions concerning the identification, selection, production, editing and broadcasting of specific news stories; and to submit statements that are descriptive of news department practices and policies." All this is due to the FCC by...uh...tomorrow.

The RTNDA letter, which comes from the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein & Fielding, damns Fake TV News as "rife with unsubstantiated accusations and misleading half-truths," "biased and exaggerated" and "nothing more than hyperbole." The news directors organization, quite simply, wants the FCC to dismiss the whole thing and give "broadcast journalists the benefit of the doubt." After all, VNRs are just harmless everyday tools--usually nothing more than "background footage" or something excerpted in a larger story. Can't live without 'em, dig, and for the FCC to poke around in newsrooms or ask how VNRs are used or how often they're used, well, that's gonna create a "chilling effect" on stations that use "outside video to supplement their news coverage," says the letter. Which may be true, but beware journalists--and their lawyers--who throw around the phrase "chilling effect" when defending the use of press releases. --Robert Wilonsky

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