The Center, which authored the report, monitored local news broadcasts for 10 months and caught 77 local stations that had slipped corporate-sponsored “video news releases” — segments promoting commercial brands and products — into their regular news programming. These advertisements were dressed up as real news and passed off to unsuspecting viewers as legitimate. At no time during the airing, did the local correspondents reveal the corporations as the source of the material.
Collectively, the stations implicated in the report reach more than half of the U.S. population.
This illegal deception is a breach of the trust between local stations and their communities. By disguising advertisements as news, stations violate both the spirit and the letter of their broadcasting licenses, which obligate them to serve the public interest.
During a press conference yesterday FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called for "vigorous enforcement" against stations that air this corporate propaganda without revealing the source to their viewers. "Failure to disclose that to the public is a violation of federal law and in fact can be subject to criminal penalties of up to a year in jail," Adelstein said during a radio interview earlier in the day.
Despite repeated claims from broadcasters that they do not air VNRs as news, the new report reveals just the tip of the iceberg. Instances of fake TV news documented by CMD likely represent less than 1 percent of VNRs distributed to local newsrooms since June 2005. Fraudulent news reports have likely been aired on hundreds of more local newscasts in the past year.
Sinclair Terrorizes with ‘I-Porn’
(View the original VNR and then then click on the image at right to see how Sinclair-owned WPGH in Pittsburgh faked it.)
Clear Channel Delivers a Placebo
(View the original VNR and then see how Clear Channel-owned WSYR in Syracuse faked it).
Fox Sweetens the Pitch
(View the original VNR and then see how Fox's KTVI-3 in St. Louis faked it).
You can find instances of fake news in your community, by visiting the Free Press map of all the VNR stations exposed by the CMD report.
Approximately 80 percent of the stations snared in the investigation are owned by large conglomerates. The list of the worst offenders reads like a who's who of big media: Clear Channel, News Corp./Fox Television, Viacom/CBS Corp, Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcast Group — whose Oklahoma City affiliate was caught airing VNRs on six separate occasions.
The evidence draws a clear line between media consolidation and the broadcast of deceptive, pre-packaged propaganda. When all station owners care about is the bottom line, fake news can prove irresistible.
There’s a reason for this: VNRs are free. Reporting news that’s meaningful to local communities isn’t. By opting to air a VNR instead of sending a reporter into the field, station owners save a fortune. Corporate PR firms offer local stations VNRs knowing there’s a built-in incentive to use them. By dressing up fake news as local reporting, stations cut costs and increase profits.
On April 6, Free Press and CMD delivered a formal complaint to the FCC, urging the agency to take immediate and strong action to stop this widespread abuse. The complaint calls on Chairman Kevin Martin to determine whether station consolidation has contributed directly to the potentially illegal proliferation of fake news. This FCC inquiry must happen before the Commission reconsiders its rulings on broadcast ownership, according to the complaint.
Free Press has asked the public to get involved. Today, thousands of our members and other outraged Americans are writing the FCC to demand an end to fake news.