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An FCC complaint takes aim at TV news 'experts' paid to promote products

September 28, 2010 | 11:30 am

WernerEarlier today, the nonprofit watchdog group Free Press filed a complaint with Federal Communications Commission based on Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey's complaints about hidden advertising embedded in newscasts. Over the last week, Rainey has written two columns that take the federal government to task for its "flimsy and fitful crackdown" on news outlets that present paid spokespeople as if they were independent consumer advocates.

On Sept. 15, he reported that morning news programs in towns like Detroit, Atlanta and Phoenix had welcomed Elizabeth Werner, a perky young mother and "toy expert," onto their shows for a back-to-school shopping guide. What these programs failed to divulge was that Werner praised products only from companies that agreed to pay her initial asking price of $11,000 for the publicity. "Local television news has become a hotbed for pay-to-play promotions," wrote Rainey, who has previously chronicled the efforts of City of Hope Medical Center and Ford Motor Co. to buy their way onto L.A. stations."The trend promises to continue to grow."

Rainey noted that stations that fail to disclose that their "experts" are paid can be fined up to $37,500 per violation."But you don't hear about a flood of penalties coming out of Washington, do you?" he wrote.

On Sept. 18, he challenged the FCC to stop this trend of "hucksters masquerading as journalists." Last year, he noted, the agency announced new guidelines that required disclosure of cash and gifts that would not be readily apparent to viewers.

"The agency hopes the threat of public embarrassment will keep hucksters in check," he wrote. "Judging from my reporting on toy woman Werner, I'm not so sure. Several PR professionals told me they see secretly paid promotions only growing.... Television stations won licenses from the FCC with promises to uphold a trust to serve the public interest. Critical in that trust is helping the audience understand where content comes from."

Now that Free Press has issued an official complaint to the FCC, they have a chance of earning that trust back.

--Melissa Maerz

Photo: Elizabeth Werner appears on a Detroit TV station. Credit: WJBK Fox 2 Morning News.

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