Apr 1 2006

Fear & Favor 2005 — The Sixth Annual Report

Outside (and inside) influence on the news

In 1896, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs laid out standards by which journalism is still judged today, declaring that his paper would “give the news, all the news . . . impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interest involved.”

Unfortunately, mainstream media often fail to live up to that goal; demands from advertisers, government, media owners and other powerful people frequently manage to blur or breach the wall between the editorial and business ends of the newsroom. In survey after survey, journalists report that they feel outside—or inside—pressures to avoid, slant or promote certain stories that might affect those powerful interests. Each year, FAIR compiles a list of some of the most striking examples of such influence; it is by no means comprehensive, but we hope that it sheds some light on those pressures facing journalists and encourages both them and the public to continue to expose threats to independent reporting.

In Advertisers We Trust

Most people are aware that news media rely on corporate advertising dollars—though the fact is rarely discussed, and when it is, editors and producers will generally insist that there’s no connection between the companies that buy ads and the content of the news. Each year, however, the line between news and advertising blurs further; last year the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner gave notice to its staff that it was about to hire an “advertorial editor,” to be paid half by the newsroom and half by the advertising department (CJR, 9-10/05). While most breaches of the editorial wall are less blatant, they’re no less worrying.

The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general (AdAge.com, 5/24/05).

While these demands may seem like an egregious intervention into the editorial process, the truth is, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age (5/16/05), there’s “a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like this.” Another magazine executive, also afraid to talk on the record, told AdAge.com (5/24/05) that “magazines are not in the financial position today to buck rules from advertisers.” An Ad Age reporter (5/16/05) who contacted executives at places like USA Today, Business Week, the New York Times and Fortune found them all unwilling to explain how such advertiser demands were handled.

And of course advertisers don’t only make clear what sort of news they don’t want to be associated with. The October 31 issue of Time magazine featured a section, labeled “The Future of Energy,” about the need to pursue alternatives to oil and to make oil production more efficient. Throughout the feature were full-page ads for BP, with taglines like “investing in our energy future,” explaining how the company is pursuing alternatives to oil. BP is also mentioned by a source in Time’s feature article as one of the more innovative energy companies. That, presumably, was free.

U.S. News & World Report featured a similar advertiser-friendly layout in a health column (12/5/05) about Alzheimer’s disease, which was interspliced with two full-page ads that seemed more than coincidentally related. One ad was for an Alzheimer’s treatment drug called Aricept the other was for MetLife, the insurance company, touting their foundation’s contributions to funding research on Alzheimer’s. (“Young Brains, Beware,” the magazine’s headline read, while the MetLife ad declared, “You’d be surprised how early the effects of Alzheimer’s can set in.”)

Time and U.S. News apparently think going to such lengths to serve corporate sponsors is good business. But it’s clearly not good business for readers if advertisers are choosing stories on the basis of which will show their products in the best light.

At least one outlet is shamelessly selling access to its editorial staff. When the Wisconsin State Journal launched its new Capital Region Business Journal, it announced that advertisers who forked over $25,000 would get not only spots in each issue of the Business Journal and on its website, but a place on the publication’s advisory panel—including at least six meetings a year with top editors of the State Journal, which shares staff with the business publication.

State Journal publisher Jim Hopson (Madison Capital Times, 3/17/05) said advertisers weren’t buying access:

The sponsors who are sitting on our advisory panel are actually doing us a favor. . . . I’m grateful we’re getting good sound advice to help make certain we’re covering the topics and issues that are important to the business community. If anyone wants access to the State Journal, they are welcome to call.

Whether the State Journal will consider your advice just as good and sound without $25,000 backing it up, though, was not addressed.

When it comes to blurring the line between editorial and advertising, morning news shows have long been the vanguard. Now some Gannett-owned stations are simply erasing the line, airing so-called “magazine” morning programs on which the majority of guests pay to be on the air—in other words, infomercials.

In Minnesota, Gannett’s KARE, an NBC affiliate, announced plans to transform its Today talkshow into Showcase Minnesota, on which some segments will be sold to advertisers at the rate of $2,500 for five minutes. The new show will be shifted from the local programming department to the advertising department. KARE’s general manager claims the paid segments will be clearly labeled (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 11/23/05). In Sacramento, the executive producer of the similar show Sacramento & Co. told the Sacramento Bee (8/17/05): “Our vision for the show is very clear. This is not a news program.”

Viewers may not get such a clear vision for these shows, however. It’s no secret that advertisers increasingly favor such “advertorial” type programs—with hosts who look like journalists on sets that look like newsrooms—precisely because viewers give them more credence than they do late-night spiels about steak knives. The fact that the Sacramento station, Sacramento News10, won’t release the names of the companies that have ponied up to be featured on the show isn’t much testament to their transparency.

And as for the news value of the paid programming, former Today host Pat Evans—a news department employee—was sanguine, calling the new format “a vehicle for the community to have a voice.” That’s the “community” that can afford to pay $500 a minute, of course.

Even though public television was created precisely to give citizens media free from corporate pressures, it’s not immune to advertisers’ demands. Public television plugs for “sponsors” are often indistinguishable from ads on corporate television stations, but at Connecticut Public Television, currying favor with advertisers has gone a giant step further. When producers for CPTV interviewed doctors at Hartford Hospital for a series on women’s health, Connecticut Public Broadcasting president and CEO Jerry Franklin demanded they redo the segment at St. Francis Hospital—a major financial sponsor of the series—instead. He told the Hartford Courant (8/19/05) that the absence of St. Francis made the segment unbalanced and unfair to the underwriter. And it’s not an isolated incident; Franklin has been reaching out to nonprofit funders to “co-produce” CPTV programming for the five years he’s been in charge. At least three producers have quit projects at CPTV because of Franklin’s pressures (Hartford Courant, 8/8/05).

PBS prohibits sponsorships “when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program.” Franklin told the Courant (8/8/05) that those standards only apply to nationally distributed programming, and that his policy is acceptable because he only partners with nonprofit organizations. Credibility with viewers, apparently, doesn’t figure into Franklin’s equation.

The Boss’s Business

Media companies are so entangled with each other nowadays, it can be hard to keep track of who owns what. But sometimes a media outlet’s editorial stance gives you pretty direct clues to that outlet’s owners, and their interests. Such was the case with an editorial in the Dallas Morning News (2/6/05) weighing in on the current FCC debate about “must carry” rules, which require cable companies to continue to carry local channels as they convert to digital technology.

The Morning News argued strongly that “must-carry” rules be maintained; its editorial spoke urgently of local programming as the “bulwark of a democratic society,” the sort of programming that “connects viewers to their community.” Nowhere did the paper note, however, that it has another, less high-minded interest in the matter: The Dallas Morning News is owned by Belo Corporation, a media company that owns 19 local television stations and is lobbying the FCC in support of “must-carry” rules, which would greatly increase its market power. According to the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz (2/14/05), the editorial page editor at the Morning News said she regretted the omission, which she blamed on a busy schedule and staff shortages.

Examples of “synergy,” the cross-promotion of shows from the same corporate owner, are almost too numerous to count on television these days. Morning shows tend to be the worst offenders: ABC’s Good Morning America regularly featured interviews and segments devoted to ABC’s primetime hit Desperate Housewives last year, while CBS’s Early Show welcomed cast members booted from that network’s popular reality show Survivor. But the practice is even becoming de rigueur on what have traditionally been considered “serious” shows—as when ABC’s John Stossel hosted a broadcast of 20/20 from the set of Desperate Housewives, reporting on “real-life versions of topics covered on the show” (Variety, 3/18/05), not long after Primetime Live featured (2/3/05) a lengthy interview with the show’s star, Teri Hatcher.

Last year, when NBC’s Dateline was taking heat for devoting hours of airtime to the finales of Friends and other NBC shows, Jeff Fager, the executive producer of CBS’s 60 Minutes, vowed he wouldn’t be caught doing that: “We are not going to do the one-hour special for Everybody Loves Raymond’s departure,” he said, referring to the hit CBS sitcom. Fager explained that “any viewers who tuned in and saw us doing that would leave in a heartbeat.”

A year later, when Everybody Loves Raymond went off the air, 60 Minutes (5/8/05) marked the occasion by interviewing the series’ star, Ray Romano. Hypocrisy? No, says Fager—because it wasn’t a full hour. This gives us some insight into the ethical reasoning of network news executives: Apparently you can turn one-third of your news program into a commercial for your network’s shows and still maintain your journalistic integrity.

An activist with Ohio Patients’ Rights got a lesson in media self-interest when he tried to place an announcement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s health calendar for a meeting to discuss the “Cleveland City Council permitting hospitals to ban patients for any complaint.” Though he had placed meeting announcements before, this one was rejected with no explanation. Suspecting that the rejection was related to hospitals being a big advertiser in the paper, he submitted a new announcement to a different Cleveland paper, the weekly Sun News—owned, like the Plain Dealer, by Advance Publications—this time about a meeting to discuss the Plain Dealer’s censorship of his first meeting announcement. He received an accidental reply from Sun News staffer Carol Kovach, who apparently meant to send the message to her executive editor, Linda Kinsey: “Linda: Did you get this? He wants us to publish this. I think it’s in poor taste for us to publish the stuff about the PD. A straight meeting notice, OK, but do we really need to bash the PD? Let me know what you think.” Needless to say, the announcement never ran.

Though FAIR aims to promote journalistic ethics by shining a light on breaches, an item from a past report prompted one paper to commit another breach. The Kingston, N.Y. Sunday Freeman published (4/17/05) a syndicated column by Norman Solomon that recounted some of the examples given in FAIR’s “Fear & Favor 2004” report (3-4/05)—but with one change. The paper added the following editor’s note after an item criticizing the New Haven Register’s extensive and fawning coverage of a new Ikea store:

Register officials say the news coverage and editorial were warranted because of the positive economic impact Ikea would bring to the New Haven area. The Register says it knew prior to the opening that Ikea would be an infrequent advertiser.

What the note failed to mention was that the Register is the flagship publication of the Journal Register Company, the same company that owns the Freeman. And in case the source of that editorial decision is in any doubt, the journalist who brought the incident to FAIR’s attention noted that “everyone in the editorial staff at the Freeman is incensed about this breach of ethics (in a journalism ethics column, of all places!).”

Powerful Players & PR

A common complaint about media is that all they care about is money. But there’s money, and then there’s money. The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had money—they were prepared to pay $5,000 to run an ad in Billboard magazine—and Billboard was happy to take that money. But then, sometime between when Billboard agreed to run the ad and the day it was slated to run, the ad was cancelled. According to the New York Daily News (3/29/05), PETA’s ad was a direct criticism of Jennifer Lopez, whose new clothing line prominently features real fur. Could it be that the magazine found PETA’s money less compelling than the influence of Sony Corporation’s Epic Records, which just released Lopez’s new album, and that of Lopez’s powerful publicist, Nanci Ryder? The Daily News couldn’t get Billboard to return calls for an explanation of the decision, but Ryder wasn’t shy about declaring victory. “I’m doing my job, which is protecting my client,” she told the News.

If they’re not selling interviews to advertisers outright (see In Advertisers We Trust, above), morning news shows are still generally chockablock with soft segments on entertainment, travel and consumer products that don’t eschew brand names. Indeed, the only thing distinguishing such popular features from infomercials is that the experts discussing the products don’t seem to be paid by the manufacturers—“seem,” unfortunately, sometimes being the operative word.

Take James Oppenheim, technology editor at Child magazine. In November 2004 Oppenheim appeared on a local Austin, Texas news program talking up various toys, including Kodak’s new electronic photo album for kids. He also pushed the product in a similar appearance on NBC’s Today show (12/21/04). What viewers of neither segment knew was that Oppenheim was paid by Kodak to promote the thing, along with virtually every other product he mentioned (Wall Street Journal, 4/19/05). The Austin station says they didn’t know about the deal, while NBC says they’re looking into it. But these kinds of financial relationships are really open secrets.

The Wall Street Journal illustrated how the system works: The companies it talked to said that disclosure is the responsibility of TV stations, while TV stations claim to be simply shocked when they learn of such relationships, no matter how many times they learn of them.

Since national news shows at least pretend to have standards about such things, companies often don’t pay the so-called experts for those spots directly. They just pay the person for appearances on lots and lots of local shows, and then, if they happen to mention the product when they’re on, say, Good Morning America—that’s just “icing.” Of course, a journalist should disclose whenever sources have been paid by the companies they’re talking about—not just when they’re being paid at the moment that they’re speaking to the journalist—but everyone knows why they don’t. A spokesperson for Wal-Mart, which pays a woman to promote their jewelry on TV, spelled it out in the Journal: If the payments were disclosed, that would make their paid expert’s appearances look too much like infomercials.

It’s not just morning shows that venture into that gray zone between news and infomercial, though; newspaper journalists can likewise succumb to the temptation of an easy story provided by PR people. In March 2005, headlines across the country announced a dramatic new study by the National Sleep Foundation showing that half the adult population of the U.S. had trouble falling asleep. But as the Sacramento Bee’s Dorsey Griffith and Steve Wiegand (6/26/05) pointed out after some digging, the reports largely failed to note a key bit of information: The study and its publicity campaign were funded by pharmaceutical companies that make sleeping pills.

What’s more, the Bee reported that the National Sleep Foundation, though ostensibly an independent nonprofit health advocacy group, gets most of its money from sleeping pill manufacturers, and 10 of its 23 board members have current or past financial ties to the industry. But reporters didn’t have to do this kind of sleuthing to realize that there was a connection between the study and the sleeping pill industry; the fact that the press kit announcing the study also included a pitch for a new sleeping pill, Lunesta, should have been a giveaway.

However, the Bee looked at 84 mainstream news reports on the study and found that only 17 mentioned the drug industry’s sponsorship of the study and the foundation. Those kinds of journalistic gaps, particularly in health reporting, are something worth losing sleep over.

Government Pressures

Media got off to an inauspicious start in 2005 with the revelation that the Bush administration paid journalist Armstrong Williams to plug the No Child Left Behind Act (USA Today, 1/7/05). The emergence of similar stories throughout the year showed that the Williams case was hardly an isolated incident of journalistic conflicts between allegiance to the public and to the government (or a government paycheck).

In Florida, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (3/26/05) revealed that Gov. Jeb Bush’s office used taxpayer dollars to hire the services of Mike Vasilinda, a well-known freelance television reporter in Tallahassee, who also runs his own video production company. The state paid Vasilinda’s firm more than $100,000 over four years to produce news spots promoting Bush’s policies, as well as those of other Florida government agencies, including the Department of Education and Secretary of State. Meanwhile, Vasilinda was covering those same agencies in his television wire service reports, which aired on CNN and local NBC affiliates.

While some stations, when informed of Vasilinda’s dual role, said they’d stop running his reports, others had no qualms, like news director Forrest Carr at Tampa’s WFLA: “[Vasilinda] assures me he has safeguards in place. He would not allow himself to be in a position where he would allow his journalism to be compromised.” Presumably, though, Carr won’t be attaching notices to Vasilinda’s reports to let viewers decide for themselves if they place the same amount of trust in the PR agent-cum-journalist.

The Boston Globe (4/8/05) uncovered a similar relationship between Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration and Boston Herald columnist Charles D. Chieppo. In his March 21 column, Chieppo extolled Romney’s mass transit plan, which was drawn up by the head of the state’s Environmental Affairs office. What he didn’t tell readers was that only three days earlier he’d submitted a bid for a $10,000 contract to help promote that office’s policies—a contract he won soon after his laudatory column ran.

What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that the Herald didn’t see a problem with Chieppo’s deal with the state; editorial page editor Rachelle Cohen decided to keep him on provided he didn’t write about “topics he’s consulting on.” It wasn’t until the Globe exposé ran that the paper dropped Chieppo, citing his failure to disclose another contract with a state authority to promote the state’s tourism industry (Boston Globe, 4/9/05).

On November 2, the Washington Post carried a potentially explosive front-page story about “black sites,” secret prisons established by the CIA after the September 11 attacks to interrogate terrorism suspects. The Post reported that while virtually nothing was known about these sites, concerns about them were increasing in the wake of revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and
Guantánamo Bay.

But one crucial thing that the Post did know about the sites—their locations—it withheld from the public, at the request of government officials. The Post explained that senior officials “argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.” Of course, keeping the locations secret also offers the government a way to keep their activities out of the public eye. The Post article noted that government officials acknowledged that revealing information about the sites would open the U.S. to legal challenges and “increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.” In other words, it’s just the kind of story that a watchdog press should be digging into.

Other outlets showed less deference to the U.S. government; reports detailing likely locations emerged in the Financial Times (11/3/05) and elsewhere. To date, though, the Washington Post has kept its pact with the White House.

The Bush administration and its supporters complain regularly about the dearth of positive news stories in Iraq. But a Washington Post column by Al Kamen (4/8/05) indicates that at least some journalists are censoring the bad news, not the good news. According to Kamen, an internal army report explained that U.S. forces took an embedded reporter to a school near Mosul to cover the handing out of school supplies to needy students. But when they arrived at the site, the report said, they found not schoolchildren, but an Iraqi family homesteading in the building.

The report continued:

Fortunately, the reporter elected not to cover the event, which could have made us look bad, since we didn’t know what was going on with the school after we funded its construction. . . . [The journalist] understood what had happened and had other good coverage to use . . . rather than airing any of this event.

With journalists, from embedded reporters all the way up to Washington Post editors, “electing” not to provide the American public with news that exposes government’s failures and wrongdoings, official censorship is apparently no longer even necessary.

Please also see the sidebars to this article: Prepackaged News: Straight From the Source, No Journalism Required and Strictly Personal