Fox News Fakes News

Just about four years ago to the day, I criticized my industry, the public relations industry, for its use of video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are video segments designed to look exactly like a TV news story. But they are produced by PR pros, not reporters, often with PR people acting out the role of faux reporters. Just as PR people and their clients hope, VNRs often get run unedited or lightly edited on actual newscasts, which has caused watchdog groups like PR Watch to label this crowning achievement of the PR industry “fake news.” This brand of fake news has been shamelessly used over the years to sell everything from widgets to wars.

Ever the killjoy, I argued back in the day that VNRs are qualitatively different than written news releases: “The use of PR people mimicking the dress and conventions of news reporters without real time disclosures of their mimicry crosses the line from briefing reporters to impersonating reporters.”

VNR’s just do not pass a reasonable person’s smell test.

My quixotic propsoal was for PR pros to be proactively ethical, and disclose the funder of the VNR, via a continuously on-screen chyron, to make it impossible for a TV news producer to use any VNR footage without proper attiribution.

This proposal did not catch fire in PR salons.

But the issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, last week the FCC penalized the local Fox affilate, KMSP-TV, for airing a story about the automobile industry that was, it turns out, exactly how General Motors would tell the story, if it were telling the story itself. Because it was. Because the KMSP-TV news team borrowed heavily from a GM-funded VNR advertisement.

The feds gave Twin Cities-based KMSP-TV the functional equivalent of a parking ticket — a paltry $4,000 fine — for failing to identify the clever General Motors PR team as being the funders, reporters, writers, directors, producers, videographers and distributers of the propaganda. But, hey, at least there was a fine.

MPR’s Martin Moylan produced real news on about the fake news in our midst:

Corie Wright is policy counsel at Free Press, one the organizations that complained to the FCC about the KMSP broadcast and similar broadcasts by 137 other stations.

“The problem is the station aired the video as though it was an objective newscast and failed to disclose it was actually a commercial masquerading as news,” Wright said.

Wright says the FCC has acted on only seven of her organization’s complaints about TV stations concealing the use of corporate-provided videos in newscasts.

KMSP’s owner, Fox Television, said neither the station nor its employees received anything for broadcasting the GM video. Fox argued the video was like a press release. Fox said it’s reviewing the matter, and it could appeal the fine. The FCC declined to comment.

All of which leaves me wondering, where are PR counselors getting their PR counsel?

– Loveland

17 thoughts on “Fox News Fakes News

      1. Jim Leinfelder says:

        You’re a class act, Joe, and a credit to your profession. But, ultimately, the onus falls squarely on the narrow shoulders of executives in charge of the TV news operations that lazily and cynically use these VNRs as newscast helper that need the counseling.

        Any unpaid newsroom intern knows enough not to just provide a free, unlabeled infomercial for a company or an industry squarely within the body of a newscast. You don’t need to attend an ethics seminar at The Poynter Institute to know that. Or do you?

      2. Joe Loveland says:

        Nice of you to say, Jim, but I do think there is joint culpability. As I’ve said before, the user of the bong has ultimate culpability. At the same time, it doesn’t pass the smell test for the manufacturer of the bong to claim “hey, I didn’t mean for them to use the bong like THAT.”

      3. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Of course, Joe, your “bong” analogy completely eludes me. But I think what you’re positing is the very sort of gambit that NEVER went over with my Mom or the good Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

        I do take your point, though. But just because someone serves me a redolent turd sandwich doesn’t mean I’m duty bound to eat it or later claim that I thought it was braunschweiger. But I realize that you are focusing your critical eye on your profession, for which it owes you an ongoing debt.

        As I said, you are a stand-up guy.

  1. Joe Loveland says:

    This is what the LA Times had to say:

    The good news: The action serves notice that a distracted and far-flung federal agency has not completely forgotten the dozens of instances of “fake news” — essentially commercials dressed up as editorial content — first uncovered in 2006 by a couple of public interest organizations.

    The bad news: It took more than four years for the FCC to finally move on the complaints against the stations, Atlantic City’s WMGM and Minneapolis’s KMSP, even though the violations seemed self-evident from the get-go. And the proposed penalty of just $4,000 won’t do much to scare off the next station manager intent on fobbing off hucksterism as real reporting.

    The commercial pitches are not entirely new, but they seem to be proliferating, partly as a result of staff cutbacks at local news stations and because advertisers are desperate to find a way into the middle of programs, when their messages are less likely to be skipped by viewers with mute buttons and digital recording devices.

  2. PM says:

    A lot of this reminds me of the debate between so called “news creators” and “news aggregators”.

    Is content just content? What makes “content” news? What makes content “news”? And, to be completely cynical, isn’t news really just a bunch of reporters stealing real people’s words anyway?

    I thought that this was an interesting commentary on the debate: http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/why-arianna-huffington-is-bill-kellers-somali-pirate/

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Fascinating PM and for those interested check out the comments following the piece. Some bright and provocative viewpoints.

    2. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Maybe I’m just none too bright, but I found this to be a lot of impenetrable cant. It’s like the tight wad who goes into an antiques store and bitches about the prices “cuz’, hell’s bells, HE could go out to local barns and hoarders’ homes and get the stuff for the half the price.” Yeah, but you don’t ,do you? And you wouldn’t know what you were looking at if you did.

      Or going to The Walker with a reluctant aesthete who can stand before a Rothko and, with not a hint of self-consciousness, declare, “hell, I could do THAT,” to which I always reply, “right, but you didn’t, and never will, did you”?

      Reporting, if it’s done right, is hard work, and requires putting in time on a beat and actually knowing something about what you’re covering, and knowing something about public records, and being dogged and treated by powerful people like a leper and not minding. At least it used to. It often requires travel and attendant expenses. And if you’re going to get people bright enough to do a good of it, you’ll need to pay them something to live on.

      Aggregating, not so much. It’s the difference between a lion and a jackal. Ms. Huffington, it seems to me, is as expediently protean as lucifer himself. She takes whatever form she senses from the zeitgeist will serve her interests best. And when the winds shift, so does she. Without the admittedly decaying nucleus of traditional media out there burning shoe leather, there would be precious little for the aggregators to pile onto and off of which to feed.

  3. Newt says:

    Why is this even news? At least 25% of the video on local broadcasts is “sponsored” by organizations other than the station. Yawn.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Well, I don’t claim to watch, Newt. But I did work in the local TV news biz for a few years and I don’t recall what you allege as an acceptable practice, much less “25% of the video.”

      Granted, I’ve been away for a long time. But, come on, man, if you’re going to make such an extraordinary claim, cite a source, make an effort.

      1. Newt says:

        The smaller the market, the number is well above 25%. Everything from Motley Fool financial updates, to Consumer Reports VNRs, to Lucky Severson health reports. Very little content is local anymore. Even Paul Douglas has figured out a way to do “local” weather reports generated by weathercasts produced in his Twin Cities’ studio.

        Yes, much as changed since you left the newsroom.

  4. Minnesotan says:

    It’s too bad the MN News Council shut itself down. While they didn’t have any legal authority on these matters, it’s never fun to get a black eye from a group of your peers.

  5. Festus says:

    The purpose of the ‘news’ (and not just faux) is to give you a chance to grab a beer between commercials.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not trying to sell you something.

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