(This is a column I wrote for PR Week.)
The VNR mini-scandal took a sadly predictable turn earlier this month.
Two media and marketing watchdog groups issued a new report showing that the use of unlabeled VNRs by local TV “news” programs was continuing even in the face of heightened scrutiny.
The report, from Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy, was an updated litany of behavior that runs from queasy-making to flat-out unethical. No doubt, it’s lamentable to cheat the viewers in this way. The practice should stop, pronto.
But does it justify serious government intervention? Here’s where we can have some doubts.
For one thing, since when has media misbehavior in this regard been new? Since never.
Newspapers have taken material from press releases and corporate “statements” and run it verbatim without attribution as long as I can remember. No, this isn’t a universal practice, but it isn’t uncommon, either.
Some magazines have been known to kowtow to advertisers, doing what amounts to pay-for-play in their articles. When I see an advertisement for a product in close proximity to a story about, or referring to, the product or company, I always wonder about less-than-pure motives on the part of the publication.
And what about the tendency of newspaper editorial pages to print Op-Ed pieces under the bylines of the rich, famous, and powerful? I speak here, in particular, of Op-Ed policy columns allegedly written by politicians, but in reality crafted by their staffs. If papers were truly passionate about truth in packaging, they would refuse outright to print ghostwritten material of this kind, or insist on labeling it more honestly.
Still, broadcast “news” – I use quotes because local TV news typically lacks serious coverage – is different, at least in theory. This is because, also in theory, the airwaves are a scarce public resource.
The Federal Communications Commission is a ham-handed enforcer in many situations. Take, for example, the inane war on so-called indecency, which for the most part is a politically motivated attempt to make broadcast programming suitable only for children.
When it comes to VNRs and the like, the FCC requires broadcasters to tell viewers when “such matter is sponsored, paid for, or furnished, either in whole or in part; and by whom or on whose behalf such consideration was supplied.” Good idea, but why should the government be the enforcer except when the cheating becomes outright fraud?
It assumes this role because broadcasters have fewer First Amendment rights than other media creators. The broadcasters deserve equal free speech. The scarcity argument no longer makes sense, if it ever truly did in the first place. We have more than enough media channels of all kinds now.
The best solution to shady VNR tactics is sunlight. It would be great if professional journalists blew the whistle more frequently on each other, but for now we have to rely on public-spirited nonprofits, bloggers, and others to do it. But in the absence of genuine swindles, government should keep its distance.