Do Paid-For Local TV Segments Violate the Law?

Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey (9/15/10) takes a look at “experts” appearing on local newscasts who are actually paid spokespeople for commercial interests–without viewers being made aware of this fact.

He focuses on “toy expert”Elizabeth Werner, who makes appearances on local stations to talk up new products–on behalf of a company paid by toy manufactures to doso. Her employer, DWJ Television, saysit tells TV stations that companies are footing the bill for her promotional appearances.If that’s true, then the burden is clearly on the stations to tell viewers about this connection. Rainey argues that it’s the law, too:

Federal law requires disclosure, too, “when a broadcast station transmits any matter for which money, service or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid.” That would include noting that advocates giving an opinion about a product have been paid to do so.

Station operators must “exercise reasonable diligence” in trying to discern whether promotional payments have been made, FCC regulations say. Stations that fail to disclose, with either a spoken or on-screen disclaimer, 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?

Rainey looked at three of Werner’s recent appearances–in Detroit, Atlanta and Phoenix–and reports:

A spokesperson for the two Fox stations and the news director at the Phoenix outlet told me they had been told absolutely nothing about Werner being paid to tout products, which ranged from a Play-Doh press to a new Toy Story video game to the Paper Jamz electronic guitar.

Assuming they really didn’t get any notice of Werner’s pay arrangement (and the Phoenix station offered one e-mail that didn’t disclose the sponsorship), that would put the stations in the clear, right?

Wrong. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a newsroom knows that when someone comes through the door offering their expertise, you start asking questions.

One would hope so, at least.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.