Time for PR People to Come to the Defense of Media Freedom
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Time for PR People to Come to the Defense of Media Freedom

The battle over video news releases has escalated to such a point that the Federal Communications Commission is now seriously considering regulation that would force television stations to disclose the source of the information they broadcast.

Paul Holmes

This has gone far enough.

The battle over video news releases has escalated to such a point that the Federal Communications Commission is now seriously considering regulation that would force television stations to disclose the source of the information they broadcast, and could impose substantial fines on stations that fail to comply.

The reason is a campaign over what critics—led by the Center for Media and Democracy (more on the irony of that name later)—have taken to describing as “fake news.”

First, we should take a moment to dispose of that canard.

The process by which a video news release finds its way on to a television station is in every significant respect identical to the process by which any news story finds its way into any medium: a reporter, editor, or producer decides that it is newsworthy, based on the merits of the story. There is no payment, no “sponsorship,” no quid pro quo of any kind involved

The reporter, editor, or producer evaluates the material, decides whether it is of interest and value to his or her audience, and chooses when the segment will air and in what format. He or she also decides whether the report will include comment from the station’s editorial staff, supplemental facts, or interviews with other sources—including those who might take issue with the perspective of the story’s instigator.

In this respect, a video news release is no different from a press release. There are occasions on which reporters lift quotes, assertions and statistics from printed press releases, reproducing them almost verbatim. Does this produce “fake” stories? If a travel magazine reporting on a destination uses a photograph supplied by a local tourism organization rather that dispatching its own photographer half way around the world, is the result a “fake” photograph?

To understand just how utterly specious the charge of fakery is, consider this: two television stations could run two totally different reports on the same new pharmaceutical product. The first station could do all of its own reporting, including interviews with the drug company’s scientists, doctors, and patients, all promoting the product and proclaiming it a “miracle drug.” The second station could use footage supplied by the pharmaceutical company, followed by an interview with a consumer activist warning of possible negative side-effects to produce a balanced and objective story. And yet the second station would be the one fined by the FCC.

There are, to be sure, occasions when a producer elects to air footage from a VNR without any supplemental reporting. In some cases, the failure to look beyond the supplied material, to interview individuals with opposing perspectives, might even be bade journalism. But if so, that hardly makes it exceptional or unique to situations in which VNR footage is involved.

Bad journalism happens every day. Television stations interview Republicans without seeking out the opinions of Democrats; newspapers accept claims made by NGOs and activists without giving corporations on the other side of the issue a chance to respond; magazines accept dubious statistics from all kinds of sources without double-checking their accuracy.

It would certainly be nice to eliminate bad reporting and by all means the Center for Media and Democracy and others have the right to criticize bad reporting where they see it. But anyone who believes in the freedom of the press and the essential role of media in a democracy must surely shudder at the idea that the problem of bad reporting can be solved by government dictate. Given the choice between occasional—or even frequent—bad reporting and a regulatory system that allows the government to second-guess the editorial judgment of the media, is there any doubt which is the lesser of two evils?

Given its support for increased government oversight of the media, one has to question whether the Center for Media and Democracy believes in either—media or democracy.

The Center seems to find PR industry charges that this constitutes censorship either inaccurate or at the very least hyperbolic. But I don’t know what else you would call it. This is not about commercial speech, about restricting the free speech rights of companies—like the California law that sought to remove First Amendment protections from press releases and other corporate communications. I still believe that law was wrong, but this is a very different situation: this is not about regulating what companies can say; it is about regulating what and how journalists can report.

Similarly, the Center’s attempt to position this issue as being about the public’s right to know “who seeks to influence them” seems equally dubious to me. I’m by no means convinced that such a right exists—the First Amendment has traditionally extended to the “anonymous pamphleteer” who seeks to influence opinion without revealing his own identity—but if it does it surely does not extend beyond commercial speech to include what is freely reported by news media.

This proposed regulation is not about forcing companies to identify themselves as the source of the material—every major producer of video news releases already does so; this is about forcing the media to identify its sources.

If a member of the Bush administration wants to provide information via the media about the torture of suspected terrorists, does the public have a right to know who he is and why he is seeking to influence them? If an executive at a large corporation wants to blow the whistle on the mistreatment of children at a factory in Asia, does the public have a right to know the details of his background?

My suspicion is that the Center would argue for the media’s right to make its own decisions in such cases, and rightly so. So I suspect that the Center wants this principle—the public’s right to know who seeks to influence it—applied selectively: one rule for people who have a political agenda of which it approves, another for people who have a commercial agenda of which it disapproves. 

Of course, the argument can be made that this is really the media’s fight, and to a certain extent that’s true. But for some in the PR industry, the fight is personal because if the government can successfully restrict the media’s right to choose its own content, their businesses—involving the production and distribution of video news releases—will suffer.

But in truth this is a fight in which everyone in the public relations industry has a stake. Public relations cannot flourish without an independent media. Nor can it exist in an undemocratic society. That’s why, in this particular battle, the PR industry is on the side of media and democracy and the Center that masquerades as a defender of those two institutions is pursuing an agenda that would undermine them both.  

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