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

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.


The news is, that pitch is paid for

Fake news flourishes under the Fed's noses

Comments () | Archives (5)

From coast to coast, local news shows are a disgrace. They ceased to be anything other than tabloid junk decades ago.

This additional bit of corrupt behavior only adds to the shame.

This is a subject that 60 Minutes and similar programs should be investigating as it has excellent access. And, according to the story, Los Angeles is free of these people.

As a former broadcaster, I encountered these "news" stories over the years and the various stations' management had been aware of the practice.

But wouldn't keeping these people off news shows reduce sales for the toy companies, etc.?

That's not good for jobs.

Besides, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have a right to spend as much money as they want for political purposes without having to disclose it, why not for advertising purposes?

I enjoy watching channel 5's local news in the morning here in L. A., not because of the overly transparent "placed" promotions and questionable expert opinions... no, I enjoy the show because tbey are almost always guaranteed to have at least 2 or 3 major directing screw-ups per hour. It's fun to watch them either squirm or laugh off the incompetant people working behind the scenes.

@ J. Priest:
Of course corporations can pay money for advertising purposes. What do you think commercials are?
The issue is that companies are advertising on news shows without letting people know that the "expert's" opinion was bought.


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