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.