WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Radio-Television News Directors Association and a coalition of more than 70 media organizations have filed a statement in support of broadcast giant Comcast after the Federal Communications Commission fined the company $20,000 for using video news release footage without identifying its source.
RTNDA and its supporters argue that the decision by the FCC’s enforcement bureau represents government interference in newsgathering and editorial activities to an unprecedented and inappropriate degree, in clear conflict with journalists’ First Amendment rights.
The fines stem from the use of VNR footage by regional news channel CN8 in stories about sleeping aids, health and fitness, life insurance, laptop computer security, and the anniversary of a popular baking mix. CN8 producers accessed the material via the CNN Newsource service, and received no payment or other favor for broadcasting the material.
Nonetheless, the FCC says the stories should have contained sponsorship identifications. According to Democratic FCC member Jonathan Adelstein: “Somebody did, in fact, pay for it, and they didn’t pay the production bills out of the goodness of their hearts. Under the law, any valuable consideration up or down the chain of production requires disclosure. Even nonpolitical VNRs can be deceptive if they lead consumers to believe a segment to be honestly researched when, in fact, it was produced by a third party with a commercial or governmental self-interest.”
RTNDA and the Coalition say the Comcast decisions mistakenly apply the FCC’s rules and claim that by making electronic journalists strictly responsible for the motives and connections of their sources, and to closely regulate the way in which these journalists use and identify source material and information, the FCC has embarked upon “an extraordinarily dangerous slippery slope toward government censorship,” and has imposed “a chilling effect on the use all types of third-party materials” that electronic journalists decide are of interest or importance to their viewers.
“The heart of this matter really is the FCC’s outright intrusion into the newsroom,” says RTNDA president Barbara Cochran. “Congress, the Supreme Court—even the FCC itself—have all determined that the government does not get to make editorial decisions better left to the free and independent journalists.”