FCC to Reporters: What You're Doing Isn't Journalism

Why is the Federal Communications Commission deciding which reporters are producing real 'news stories'?


Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared that some of the stories aired on a Chicago radio station "were not, in fact, news stories." It announced this not because the bulletins were deceptive or otherwise inaccurate, but because the project that provided the reports—a union-sponsored, left-leaning outfit called Workers Independent News—had paid for the airtime. In making this judgment, the commission stepped outside the task at hand, which was to determine whether the station had followed the FCC's requirement to disclose such payments, and moved into the more treacherous territory of assessing the content's quality.

The 90-second report that triggered the commission's action aired on WLS-AM on March 29, 2009. It began with the reporter identifying himself: "Workers Independent News, I'm Doug Cunningham." It then quoted an Illinois state legislator calling for a capital bill to tap into more federal stimulus money, and then it stated that such a bill "could make Olympics infrastructure preparation easier, should Chicago land the 2016 Olympic Games." After that, the Illinois director of veterans' affairs talked about ways to ensure that vets get some of those construction jobs. And with that, the segment concluded.

For 13 years, Workers Independent News has been syndicating such items to outlets around the country. Sometimes it pays for the airtime, and sometimes it does not. Under FCC rules, stations that accept money to transmit these broadcasts are supposed to disclose the sponsorship; on 11 occasions, WLS failed to do so. That explains why the FCC demanded that the station pay a penalty of $44,000. It doesn't explain why its February statement ordering the fine declared that these reports were not news stories.

Now, I can see why a media critic might not care for Cunningham's bulletin, which was clearly slanted in favor of the bill. But stations air slanted stories all the time, and the FCC is not in the habit of weighing in on whether their reports rise to the level of news.

John Nathan Anderson, the director of the broadcast journalism program at Brooklyn College and a co-founder of Workers Independent News, points out that radio and TV stations have a long history of transmitting "audio news releases" and "video news releases" designed by PR firms to promote a product (or, in many cases, to promote a government policy). These ads "are formatted and presented just like a commercial television news segment, often with a generic narration," Anderson writes, and stations frequently add to the disguise "by having a local reporter voice the story and us[ing] their own on-screen graphics." In a small handful of cases, the commission has fined stations for airing such reports without sponsorship announcements, but in those orders "the FCC made no determinations on the news value of video news releases themselves. Yet in 2014, when a bona-fide news organization pays for commercial carriage and the station fails to disclose, the FCC determines, on no evidentiary basis, that propaganda of some sort must be afoot."

The most benign explanation is that this is just a matter of an FCC judge adopting an unfortunate turn of phrase in a forfeiture order without thinking about the words' implications. It's not as though Workers Independent News is being fined for not being newsy enough. Indeed, it isn't being fined at all—it's the station that failed to announce the sponsorship arrangement, so it's the station that's bearing the penalty.

But there is the dark possibility of a slippery slope here too. In 2011, when the FCC fined Atlantic City broadcaster WMGM-TV for failing to identify the pharmaceutical company Matrixx Initiatives as the source of a video news release, the outlet objected that the regulation didn't apply because Matrixx hadn't paid for the airtime. There was no need for a sponsorship message, it claimed, because there was no actual sponsorship. The commission rejected this argument. The situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that the station identified another sponsor in the same broadcast, making the absence of a Matrixx acknowledgement more jarring. But the case still establishes that an outlet can be penalized for not identifying a sponsor even in the absence of an actual payment. If Workers Independent News—a genuine news service, albeit one with a point of view—is being put in the same category as Matrixx, do stations that air its reports for free have to follow the same sponsorship regulations now? What about other news services, with other points of view, that want to adopt this distribution model?

In America's newspapers, which are not regulated by the FCC, you will find news stories generated by the papers' own journalists; you will find reports syndicated by wire services; you will find ads laid out to look like news stories with the word "advertisement" printed at the top; and, sometimes, you will find barely rewritten press releases that do not have the word "advertisement" printed at the top. I speak from experience here: One of my first writing jobs, one summer in college, involved churning out press releases for a medical school, and I vividly remember the strange mix of pride and alarm that I felt when I first saw my handiwork appear unaltered in the local paper.

I don't think such depressingly common practices are good for journalism. But it would be even worse for journalism if we invited the feds to police the papers in the name of driving such poor practices out, especially if the regulators aren't sure where to draw the line between a wire service and an advertiser. The same principle applies to policing broadcasters—except that this time, the tip of the policeman's bludgeon is already inside the tent.

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  1. Not the first time shit like this has happened.

    If it didn’t wake people up in 2005, why would it wake people up now?

    “Campaigns and media figures are going to have this in the back of their heads. ‘Am I too close to this, am I talking about this too much? Should I be having lunch with this guy from the campaign?’ ” said William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which represents I-912 in the case.

  2. “the FCC made no determinations on the news value of video news releases themselves. Yet in 2014, when a bona-fide news organization pays for commercial carriage and the station fails to disclose, the FCC determines, on no evidentiary basis, that propaganda of some sort must be afoot.”

    Who would take this job? Who would even agree to sit on an FCC panel for the express purpose of determining what speech is legitimate news, and what speech may not be? How could anyone even agree to sit in judgement of others on such a blatantly unconstitutional task?

    1. Tony, for one…

    2. The question to ask is who would sit at a radio or television station and do this job? Now literally anything you approve could be the thing that shuts down the station.

      1. The answer is: some clerk at company headquarters in another city, taking a customer order and sending the commercial to 16 of the company’s 560 radio stations.

        Basically, the job is not filled by a human, it’s automated. The thing is as innocuous as any other commercial purchase that originated in the sales department. The Ford Motor Company ad is sent over comm lines to the operating computer at 395 of the company’s 560 stations to air at 7:42, 9:26, and 12:08 Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday; the Workers Independent News commercial is sent in the same way.

  3. a union-sponsored, left-leaning outfit called Workers Independent News

    It will be interesting to see if Democrats cry foul and Republicans write it off as minor, isolated incident.

    1. I was wondering what those folk at Pacifica could be saying about it. First thing I found was unrelated to this story, but interesting

      Labor Organizers Consider General Strike in Wisconsin as Gov. Scott Walker Refuses to Negotiate over Anti-Union Bill Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke speaks to Frank Emspak, founder and producer of Workers Independent News.

      1. But they’re lesbians…

  4. One of WLS-AM’s competitors, WBBM-AM, typically airs disclaimers in front of pieces like this; usually, “The following is a commercial announcement”. I have to say that every time I’ve heard the disclaimer the piece that followed was obviously promoting a product or service but the ad agency that produced the spot gave it a somewhat bland or news-sounding presentation. In this case, I would wonder if Workers Independent News specifically asked WLS-AM NOT to air a disclaimer when they purchased the time.

    IOW, I think this is more Workers Independent News attempting to hide something rather than WLS-AM trying to deceive. After all, this is a “conservative talk” formatted station so a disclaimer aired before the piece would really neuter the effect Workers Independent News is trying to achieve – that effect being an editorial decision at a conservative talk station. Of course WLS-AM, being owned by Cumulus, is run on the cheap and has no actual journalism to speak of and therefore no journalistic editorial standards to uphold.

    1. There is no conspiracy here, Finger. WLS usually airs the sponsorship announcement; on 11 occasions, whoever was at the controls screwed up and left it out.

      1. WLS usually airs the sponsorship announcement

        Your story does not say that, it only says there were 11 occasions where WLS-AM did not. They may have aired the spots a total of 11 times.

        1. Your story does not say that, it only says there were 11 occasions where WLS-AM did not. They may have aired the spots a total of 11 times.

          I didn’t want to get into the weeds of what the station did, since this was ultimately an article about WIN, not WLS. But if you clink through to the FCC forfeiture order that I quoted & linked to in the first paragraph, you can read the details of the case.

  5. There’s at least one company that produces generic ads disguised very strangely to sound like live commercials delivered by a DJ. The one they have for gold coins comes to mind. And then there were the ads for Las Vegas time shares disguised as tourism promotions.

  6. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is not, in fact, a public servant. He is, rather, a former lobbyist working at the beck and call of the cable industry.
    https://en.wikipedia dot org/wiki/Tom_Wheeler_(lobbyist)

    1. What a surprise.

  7. Yes you absolutely Right…!

  8. except that this time, the tip of the policeman’s bludgeon is already inside the tent.

    That’s not his bludgeon. Nor is it a camel’s nose. As for what it is, don’t ask questions you don’t really want to know the answer to.

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