Surveys of working journalists have found that they experience pressure from powerful interests, outside and inside the news business, to push some stories and ignore others, and to shape or slant news content. The sources of pressure include the government, which enlists media to support its actions and policies; corporate advertisers who may demand favorable treatment for their industries and products; and media owners themselves, who can use their outlets to support their increasingly various business and political interests.
In a 2000 Pew Center for the People & the Press poll of 287 reporters, editors and news executives, about one-third of respondents said that news that would “hurt the financial interests” of the media organization or an advertiser goes unreported. Forty-one percent said they themselves have avoided stories, or softened their tone, to benefit their media company’s interests. Among investigative reporters, a majority (61 percent) thought that corporate owners exert at least a fair amount of influence on news decisions.
One-third of the local TV news directors surveyed by the Project on Excellence in Journalism in 2000 indicated that they had been pressured to avoid negative stories about advertisers, or to do positive ones. And in a 1997 survey of investigative reporters and editors at TV stations published by FAIR, nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported that advertisers had “tried to influence the content” of news at their stations. Sixty percent said that advertisers had attempted to kill stories. Fifty-six percent had felt pressure from within the station to produce news stories to please advertisers.
Of course there are many sorts of pressure on journalists, including the need to tell stories in a splashy, ratings-grabbing way; but the pressures we document here are more direct and nefarious. Practically every working journalist has heard war stories about the articles that were killed or never written, or, more chillingly, of careers cut short for “making trouble,” or stepping on the wrong toes. But few accounts exist of these instances of influence, when journalists are thwarted in their attempt to report (in the phrase made famous by Adolph S. Ochs) “without fear or favor.”
In this our first annual Fear & Favor report, FAIR takes note of some of the instances from the past year when pressure from powerful interests influenced the news. This report should by no means be considered a comprehensive catalog, but we have collected some of the most outrageous and instructive examples. We hope it will serve to support working journalists who struggle to do their jobs well, and encourage them and the public to continue to demand truly independent reporting.
In Advertisers We Trust
What most of us think of as the content of news media, sponsors see primarily as the context in which their ads appear. Advertisers increasingly push for more control over that context, hoping to deliver their targeted messages in the most conducive climate. While individual journalists may resist, news media in general seem to go to increasing lengths to please big advertisers–watering down or killing stories, promoting sponsor-friendly coverage, and making promotional deals that blur the line between journalism and marketing.
Along with that arrangement came a pledge from the advertising and marketing department for a guaranteed amount of news coverage of the tournament. In return, the Star would be an associate sponsor of the tournament.
The story is reminiscent of the Los Angeles Times/Staples Center fiasco of 1999, in which that paper was excoriated, including by its own reporters, for a deal that involved the Times and the Staples Center splitting the revenue from a special magazine section on the arena. Despite a policy that “sponsorship agreements do not guarantee editorial coverage in the Star,” according to Daniels (7/16/00), this wasn’t the first time: “We found a similar arrangement had been made with organizers of the Indy Jazz Fest for a section we produced June 14 and a similar section last year.”
Journalists in the newsroom were said to have been furious, and some indicated that the decision to do the story came from the sales department. Similar criticisms had been raised about two week-long series on tourism that WCBS ran in February; reporters said they were “really infomercials aired adjacent to advertising from tourist boards.”
David Skalky, manager of the laser eye surgery practice in question, was happy to see the news story run in addition to the paid ad. “That was a bonus,” Skalky said. “That was free.”
Walters, one of ABC‘s most prominent news personalities, joined her colleagues in introducing pro-Campbell’s themes into the talkshow’s discussions: In one show, Walters asked her View colleagues, “Didn’t we grow up…eating Campbell’s Soup?” They responded by breaking into a chorus of the “M’m! M’m! Good!” jingle. In addition to developing special soup segments, the View assured Campbell’s that “hosts would try to weave a soup message into their regular on-air banter” (Wall Street Journal, 11/14/00).
ABC claims this kind of hucksterism is OK because the View is an entertainment show. Though Walters is an ABC News journalist, she is “able to wear many hats” (Wall Street Journal, 11/14/00).
The Globe apparently vetted the ad with Fleet– which happens to be one of the paper’s major advertisers. The Globe then claimed that some of the information in the ad was misleading, although, according to the Phoenix, the same information is found in Introducing Fleet: Your Guide to Fleet Products and Services, a booklet put out by the bank itself.
Washington had written an April 3 story noting that 700,000 BankBoston customers would pay higher fees after the merger with Fleet. Washington said that his editors killed several follow-ups, until he was finally told not to write about the bank merger at all. In press interviews, Washington suggested that the bank’s role as a big advertiser and a lender to the paper may have had something to do with the editorial decision (Washington Post, 5/1/00). Washington added that the paper had warned him previously about the perils of covering businesses that were also advertisers, saying that editor Andy Costello told him that “there were certain realities to the business that I needed to understand.”
At the end of April, the Herald announced that Washington was suspended without pay (Boston Globe, 5/1/00). After protests by the Newspaper Guild and the Boston Association of Black Journalists, Washington was eventually reinstated to his original job.
Powerful Players & PR
Advertisers aren’t the only powerful interests that exert influence on media. There are plenty of companies, industries and lobbies with stories they’d like media to cover, or not cover, or cover in a particular way–and many media outlets are happy to do business, trading editorial independence for financial gain or “access.” Unfortunately, media consumers have little way of knowing which stories have been shaped or shaded by behind-the-scenes deals.
Why would a paper agree to let the subject of a story determine how it could be written? Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger claimed to “hate those kind of arrangements” (implying that this wasn’t the first), but explained that “if the news is big enough, we’d rather give it to our readers with whatever caveats are appropriate.”
New York Times business editor Glenn Kramon likewise accepted this kind of deal-making as the price for being a major player in business journalism: “We’ve been serious about business news for too long to be cut out of big stories like this, and it’s about time we were included.”
According to Washington Post financial editor Jill Dutt, balance isn’t as important as doing the story quickly: “It does a better job for readers to have the story on the first day than not to have the story,” she contended. As a matter of fact, Dutt said, the Post doesn’t really need outside experts: “The Washington Post, regardless if no one is called, can give much better background and context for the significant issues involved in the deal.” And Dutt sympathizes with corporate executives, who want “a clear shot at giving investors your side of the deal before you get all the naysayers.”
Interestingly, in following up on that story, Kurtz learned that the Idaho Statesman‘s previous business editor says he was fired from the paper for writing too critical a lead on a story about…you guessed it, Micron Technologies. Kurtz’s February 7 article noted that the Statesman reporter covering Micron is married to a Micron employee. None of this is a problem for Statesman editor Carolyn Washburn, who says: “It’s not that it has anything to do with their being the biggest employer. What we write can affect a lot of people in this community. It can affect the stock price.”
Not so. Though the logo appears, the documentary was actually a half-hour infomercial paid for by the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA), a timber industry group whose members include Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade. It seems KIRO and WFPA have a deal that guarantees a certain amount of advertising and programming. The KIRO producer who worked on the piece, Pat Fisk, works not in the station’s news division, but in advertising.
As the Seattle Weekly reported (9/28/00), “The only hint that something was amiss–beyond the strangely biased content of the program itself–was one brief announcement at the beginning that said: ‘The following program was produced in cooperation with the Washington Forest Protection Association.'” Environmental advocates or critics of the timber industry were nowhere to be found in the program.
The WFPA’s Cindy Mitchell confirmed that the group is “in partnership with KIRO,” but said she wasn’t sure “whether to describe the program and the short announcements as PSAs, commercials or something else.” “I don’t know the difference,” she told the Seattle Weekly.
The resignation came after an expose published by the Internet-based NarcoNews Bulletin that pointed to a variety of conflicts involving McFarren. Most glaringly, McFarren personally lobbied the Bolivian legislature on September 14 on behalf of a water project for the Bolivian Hydro-Resources Corporation–a $78 million project that would profit a foundation created and presided over by McFarren. The project would privatize and divert water from Bolivia to international mining interests in Chile; such water privatization is one of the biggest stories in Bolivia, and a central issue in widespread protests that McFarren reported on.
McFarren denied that his lobbying constituted a conflict of interest, claiming he works for the corporate project “pro bono.”
Eventually, AP released a story on McFarren’s resignation, but their report glossed over key aspects of the case (Extra! Update, 2/01).
Improper packaging of promotional material “really borders on being unprofessional,” says Greenberg, and exhorts, “Stop promoting your clients and start presenting them in a way that shows like ours can responsibly report on them.”
Question: Is re-running video clips from publicists really “reporting”? Or, as Romenesko put it: “Why doesn’t the advertising-rich Today show shoot its own travel footage?”
TV stations like WBAL claim their editorial integrity isn’t compromised (“We decide what story to do,” WBAL news director Princell Hair told Business Week.) But Medstar, for its part, is fully conscious that what it’s doing is using the news to sell. “A PR agency or TV sales department can guarantee that an organization’s physicians will appear on TV commercials,” its proposal boasts. “But they can’t guarantee the physicians will be on the news, the most credible source for health information.”
As reported by the Detroit MetroTimes (3/15/00), Josar’s story seemed to be held at the News, possibly out of embarrassment. The only explanation the Detroit News provided was that the Detroit Free Press beat them to it, publishing a story on February 29. Waldmeir was not mentioned in that story.
In the Free Press account, airport director Dave Katz explained that those spaces are reserved for special people: “There are some who serve us in other ways who take advantage of that convenience, that courtesy.” One wonders what “service” is provided the airport by a prominent local journalist.
The Home Team
The hometown sports team is a special kind of local power player: For media, supporting the team—on and off the field–is de rigeur, and this boosterism can extend to suppression of critical information, no matter its news value. Sports is also big business, offering myriad opportunities for promotional ties to media. When does cheerleading become censorious?
WJZ also saves money by tapping its news staff to double as hosts. Between the Sunday pre-game show and “Report from the Ravenszone,” the TV station winds up with a six-figure payment every year (Baltimore Sun, 11/29/00) After the Ravens won the Super Bowl, WJZ general manager Jay Newman was ecstatic, saying, “We achieved what we wanted to achieve, embracing the Ravens from a news standpoint, as well as a commercial and marketing standpoint” (Baltimore Sun, 1/31/01).
As the Inquirer noted, the “suspension was based on a clause in the sports-talk station’s contract to broadcast Sixers and Flyers games that prohibits ‘personal attacks’ on the teams, their players and management.” Station management has informed hosts that when they plan to criticize the team on the air, they must inform the team in advance, so the team can be extended an opportunity to respond.
The Boss’s Business
Media owners are also themselves a source of pressure on journalists; their interests, on issues from the parochial to the national, have a way of making themselves known to editors and producers, who are encouraged to shape coverage to suit. Of course, today’s media outlets are often huge commercial enterprises all their own, with corporate ties to other companies and industries. As corporate America consolidates, there are fewer entities that aren’t part of the boss’s business, making them that much less likely to receive scrutiny.
Increasingly, the thing a media owner wants their outlet to promote is another media property. Call it “synergy” if you must, using news media to promote a product controlled by the same owner is still an example of undue influence. Are reporters and producers making judgments about what’s newsworthy based on journalistic values, or marketing values? Are stories without a corporate tie-in as warmly received as those with one?
On June 9, 2000 the Chronicle reported that “Hearst Corp.‘s top newspaper executive ordered Examiner publisher Timothy O. White to ‘take the necessary precautions’ to prevent a story about the Chronicle from appearing in the Examiner out of concern that the story could jeopardize Hearst‘s bid to buy the paper.”
Hearst officials deny that they had anything to do with killing the story. But an Examiner reporter told the Chronicle that stories about the newspaper’s business deals were being discouraged: “We were told that if we were going to write about these things, it would go through banks of lawyers, and no one wanted to deal with that.”
The Chronicle also reported two other instances of evident meddling at the Examiner: A column by Rob Morse about the Fang family, who took over the Examiner, had been inexplicably “held,” as was an investigation into office space owned by the Fang family and the San Francisco Airport Commission.
Such breaches seemed minor in comparison to the uproar over the testimony of Timothy White, the publisher of the Examiner. On May 1, White testified that he had expressed a willingness to trade favorable editorial treatment of San Francisco mayor Willie Brown in exchange for Brown’s support for the sale of the Chronicle. Officials at the Chronicle were quick to deny the truth of the story. White himself later claimed to have been “tired and confused.”
Security concerns following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing resulted in the street in front of the White House being closed to vehicles–complicating commutes for businesses in downtown D.C., like the Washington Post. But a story on the Post‘s September 25 front page offered hope to frustrated drivers: A study had found that the street could be reopened while still preventing a truck bomb from blowing up the president.
The Post treated the street-opening plan as big news, with two follow-up news stories and an editorial endorsing the plan. The coverage also included a September 30 Style section opinion piece, written, oddly enough, by the same reporter who wrote the front-page news piece, Benjamin Forgey. Taking off his reporter’s hat, Forgey became an impassioned advocate for the street-opening plan, demanding: “Ought we give up the symbolic center of our democratic space, making it comfortable for police cars yet not for ordinary folks?” (Of course, the street is open to people on foot, but to the Post, apparently, “ordinary folks” are in cars.)
The study that the Post spilled so much ink to promote was commissioned by the Federal City Council, a private group that includes many of the movers and shakers in D.C. But it wasn’t until their October 1 story that the paper noted that the Federal City Council is “composed of 160 members, including Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of the Washington Post Co.”
The tie is actually much closer: As Trevor Butterworth of Newswatch.org reported–but the Post did not–the Federal City Council was founded by Donald Graham’s father, Philip Graham, when he was publisher of the Post. And Donald Graham isn’t just a member; he’s the chair of the nominating committee, giving him a big say over who the other 159 members are.
Sun editorial page editor Alexander Costello and members of his family reportedly own land nearby, and stood to gain financially if the housing was destroyed. The Costello family owned the paper until a few years ago, and family members maintain a variety of management positions.
Costello maintained that the plan made sense for the whole community. (Perhaps that community sense is what inspired the paper’s reference to opponents of the demolition as the “powerful poverty lobby.”) And Sun publisher Kendall Wallace clarified the paper’s position in a column defending his personnel: ”When this is done, everyone who owns property in the area will benefit.” No word about those who don’t.
The Belo Corporation invested $40 million in a company called Digital:Convergence that manufactures a bar code-scanning device called :CueCat. Those using :CueCat on their personal computers can scan the bar codes on advertisements, calling up more information about that product.
According the Dallas Observer (9/21/00,) Dallas station WFAA-Channel 8 ran segments about :CueCat three nights in a row in September on their news broadcast. WFAA is owned by Belo.
In a related story, Wall Street Journal technology reporter Walter Mossberg criticized :CueCat in an October column, saying the device “fails miserably” in terms of convenience and raises privacy concerns in the way it identifies users, and concluding that it “isn’t worth installing and using, even though it’s available free of charge” (Wall Street Journal, 10/12/00). As also reported by the Dallas Observer, (11/2/00) one outlet that had run previous Mossberg columns, the Providence Journal, didn’t carry it that week. The Providence Journal is also owned by Belo Corporation.
Providence Journal executive editor Joel P. Rawson told the New York Times (11/6/00) that the paper was holding Mossberg’s column in order to run it, along with other reviews, when :CueCat began distribution in the area on November 12. But a subsequent search of the Nexis database and the Journal‘s website failed to find it.
Disney‘s 5 percent stake in pets.com wasn’t disclosed on the news programs, and it’s hard to see that as an oversight. The January pets.com press release announcing the deal with ABC gave the distinct impression that the company fully expected to be inserted into programming, including the news. The release said that, among other goodies, pets.com would “receive marketing and promotional support on the ABC, Inc. media properties.”
Oddly, given their evident assessment of pets.com as a significant story, ABC devoted virtually no coverage to the company’s November demise.
What about the idea that news programs were about, well, news, and that there is a line between news and entertainment? Friedman scoffs. “That line was over a long, long time ago…. That line is long gone. Now you can lament and say it’s terrible. You can say it’s over, the civilization is over. You know what, to compete you’ve got to compete. And we are in this to win. And we will use this show to help us win.”
Government and Other ‘Official’ Pressure
Along with pushes and pulls from corporate owners, advertisers and power players, U.S. journalists still face pressures—some quite overt–from government and other officials. In general, government’s shaping of the news is less direct and harder to document; but it should be noted that increased media concentration and the rising power these corporations exert in Washington mean that government and corporate interests overlap with increasing frequency, with troubling implications for democracy.
But the story wasn’t limited to TV: Magazines were also getting benefits from the Drug Czar’s program for having “acceptable” messages about drugs–magazines like U.S. News & World Report, Seventeen and Family Circle. Sunday newspaper supplements like Parade and USA Weekend were also involved. While the magazines did not have to submit articles in advance, the deal did offer them a financial incentive to slant their reporting.
The Drug Czar’s office, predictably unhappy that these stealth programs had been publicized, retaliated by going after the messenger: Robert Housman, an assistant director of the office, wrote a letter to Salon claiming that Forbes “is more than just a disinterested reporter in search of a story. Mr. Forbes has been a regular contributor to the Media Awareness Project’s Website, an organization that essentially advocates for the legalization of drugs.”
In fact, the Media Awareness Project has simply re-posted some of Forbes’ articles (without paying him)–a fact that says nothing about whether he is a disinterested reporter, and nothing about the accuracy of his reports.
Asked by the Boston Globe (4/7/00) about his letter to Salon, Housman suggested that he just wanted Salon to practice “honest journalism…. I think the readers should know.” That’s a little ironic, considering that millions of people have been watching TV shows and reading magazine articles that the government has been financially rewarding–with no disclosure from either the government or the media.
The LAPD eventually withdrew the offer, after it was ripped by media critics and other observers, though KTLA News Director Jeff Wald maintained, “It really wasn’t controversial” (Los Angeles Times, 8/1/00).
Gordon, then-chief of the Times‘ Moscow Bureau, explained to Editor & Publisher that the Times had “made a different choice to follow the rules and regulations and work within the system. Others didn’t want to, and jumped the gun.”
The Times‘ special access seems to have come at a price. Gordon’s reports from Chechnya in 2000 rarely quoted sources who were not Russian officials, soldiers or, occasionally, Moscow-appointed Chechen officials. Dissent from the official Russian line on the conflict and details about the war’s devastating impact on Chechen civilians did not figure prominently in Gordon’s coverage.