No News is Good News

When you turn on your TV, you expect to see two things: the show that you’ve tuned into and the commercials that pay for that show to be on the air. In recent years it has become more complicated to distinguish the two. One of the techniques used by advertisers is to insert product placement into the show or movie that you are watching; for instance a delivery truck in the background of a scene will have a Doritos banner emblazoned across it, or a character will be sipping on a Coke or Pepsi during a scene. These seeming co-incidences are paid for by the respective companies to the network that owns the show and not a case of “just happened to be there”.

Another, more insidious way, that advertisers use this marketing technique is through the use of Video News Releases, or VNR’s, that run during various newscasts. This is basically a pre-packaged broadcast segment designed to look like a television news story, which is funded by and scripted for corporate or government clients. An example from local (Florida) news broadcasts would be a segment on a new machine that can produce three-dimensional videos of a fetus in the womb, as opposed to the old, two dimensional fetal shots that expecting parents cherish. A very cool idea…but the piece was actually paid for by the hospital that had the machines installed in the hopes of drumming up business. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were presented as an advertisement, but it was shown as a news story with no disclaimer that the piece had actually been paid for by the interests involved.

There are FCC regulations in place that regulate this type of business transaction, and broadcasters are supposed to disclose that these are indeed paid for and not actual reported news stories. An investigation in 2005 led the FCC to send an official ‘reminder’ to various news agencies and networks of these very rules, which carry penalties of up to $350,000 and one year in jail. In 2006, the watchdog group Free Press and Center for Media & Democracy, released findings that at least 46 television stations had shown VNR’s with no public disclosure whatsoever. Some of these include: K-ABC in Los Angeles aired a segment on a new blood test that could help diagnose allergies in children, but did not disclose it was paid for by Quest Diagnostics (who were running the test in their thousands of clinics); K-OKH in Oklahoma ran a segment about e-mail ‘phishing’ scams and recommended in the story the use of a program called PC-CILIN, but did not mention that the story was an ad paid for by Trend Micro Software the makers of PC-CILIN; K-TVI in St. Louis ran a story hosted by their lifestyle reporter Julie Edelmen about various tips for a safe Halloween which included video of candy products and a flower bouquet arraignment – what she didn’t report was that the segment was paid for by Masterfoods (formerly the Mars company, makers of M&M’s and Snickers and the like) and the 1-800-Flowers company.

These types of advertisements are not just propagated by the private sector. There have been many reports that the government has bought and paid for these same type of newscast infomercials (a notable article would be from New York Time columnists David Barstow and Robin Stein entitled, “A New Age of Prepackaged Television News”). The government VNR’s to put a positive spin on various programs and initiatives have covered a wide range of topics, from Medicare reform and the No Child Left Behind act, to vaccination programs and even the war in Iraq. These manipulations of our news aren’t limited to television news either; two notable instances that affected print journalism were the scandal involving conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, who promoted the No Child Left Behind Act every chance he got, but didn’t mention that he has received over $200,000 from the Education Department to do so; and the letter that found its was into many an editorial page throughout the country supposedly from a soldier in Iraq which described all the great things that they were doing there for the Iraqi people – a letter which was written by someone in the State Department and distributed to the new-papers for print.

To me, these actions seem to come from people who are either trying to outright manipulate our purchasing power for their profit in the most underhanded of ways, or trying to manipulate our minds and emotions in order to make sure that we go along with their program. The whole situation is an incitement of the lack of ethics in business, media, and government – and considering that the FCC has yet to levy any fines against those who have broken the very laws that the FCC had supported and are supposed to enforce, shows that the protective oversight that we are supposed to be afforded is null and void.

Just a thought…

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