To: Ed Piette, Vice President and General Manager, WCCO TV; Rob Hubbard, President, Hubbard Television Group, KSTP TV; Carol Rueppel, Vice President and General Manager, KMSP Television FOX 9; John Remes, President and General Manager, KARE 11; Mary Niemeyer, Senior Vice President and Market Manager, WCCO Radio; Anders Gyllenhaal, Editor and Senior Vice President, Star Tribune; Thom Fladung, Editor, Pioneer Press:
We all agree on the importance of media. Many of us were raised believing that the medium was the message, but the problem now is often the nature of that message.
The vast majority of media available to our citizenry are provided free or at an extremely large discount. Broadcast television and radio are completely free to listeners and viewers, but paid for by advertisers who wish to influence them. Newspapers (and magazines), on average, receive 20 percent or less of their revenue from subscribers; the rest is paid by advertisers. Clearly, no one gets anything for nothing; lunches are not free, and smart advertisers get what they pay for.
Amongst us media chickens, it is generally agreed that self-interested reporting or affiliations that could affect reportorial bias will be fully disclosed. Some of you may even regard that as an ethical requirement. Then again, some of you may not—hence, this letter. You may recall that last spring, The New York Times reported that our federal government had produced hundreds of video news releases that were inserted into television news broadcasts without identification—government propaganda. Congress held hearings and the FCC issued public notice of regulations prohibiting this practice.
Most of us thought the problem ended there. In early April, however, a nonprofit watchdog group called the Center for Media and Democracy, based in Wisconsin, released a report entitled “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed” (posted at www.prwatch.org). It says that 36 video news releases created by PR firms for corporate clients were shown by 77 television stations throughout the United States. In each case, the stations disguised the true source of the “news” to make it appear to be their own reporting. In some cases, they did add their own reporting, but in more than one-third of cases, the corporate-sponsored video was shown in its entirety.
None of your stations are implicated in this report (although another Minnesota TV station is). But this report prompts questions that people may never have thought to ask any of you before: How many times have you broadcast or printed advertiser-sponsored material as your own without disclosing the true source to your viewers or readers? Equally to the point, when have you been approached to practice this deception, and by whom? What procedures you have in place that require source identification? Do you have any such procedures?
It is often said that the first draft of history is written in newspapers. Many of us believe newspapers to be a more accurate source of information and news than television or radio are, in part because more news is reported on a front page than can be read in the typical half-hour news broadcast; in any event, once committed to print, there remains an indelible record. But the corruption of journalistic ethics by corporate sponsors may occur in daily newspapers also. Editors may decide not to run articles for fear of offending advertisers. My question is somewhat different: Do the Twin Cities’ daily newspapers run “prepackaged” features or news items without attributing them to the entity that paid for their publication? Have you been asked to do so, and by whom?
Media matters to all of us. My concern is that it now matters more to those who pay the piper than to those who hear the song.
Increasingly Skeptical Media Consumer,
Vance K. Opperman