Posted by Daniel Price on March 16, 2006

Shopping Advice from a Store-Bought Expert

At holiday time, a seemingly-impartial consumer advocate shills for three corporations

Clients: Panasonic, Namco, Techno Source
Release Date: November 2005
Aired By: 9 stations
Disclosed By: No stations

On December 2, 2005, WPGH-53 (Pittsburgh, PA) ran a holiday feature on the best and worst high-tech gifts for children. In it, technology expert and "Internet Mom" Robin Raskin warned parents about two potentially dangerous items on the market while praising four that are safe and fun for kids.

What WPGH's viewers didn't know is that the story was actually a video news release (VNR) created by D S Simon Productions and jointly funded by Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source. By no coincidence, all of the products Raskin recommends—the Oxyride battery, the Pac-Man and We Love Katamari games, and the Coleco retro gaming system—come from either Panasonic, Namco or Techno Source.

Even more insidious, the two products Raskin deems unsafe—Apple's Video iPod and Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo handheld gaming device—are direct commercial competitors of two of the three VNR sponsors. Panasonic offers a rival line of MP3 players while Techno Source battles Tiger Telematics in the handheld gaming market.

By itself, this VNR is little more than a tri-company infomercial that plugs numerous products while trashing its competitors. And yet when laundered through credibility of TV journalism, viewers are deceived into thinking they're watching an independent news report with an impartial consumer expert.

Of the seven stations who incorporated the VNR into their newscasts, none disclosed the funding source of the story. In addition to WPGH-53, three stations—KOKH-25 (Oklahoma City, OK), KTBS-3 (Shreveport, LA) and WCTI-12 (New Bern, NC)—ran the VNR without a single edit, introducing the narrating publicist, Sonia Martin, as if she were a reporter at the station. Three additional newscasts—WLFL-22 (Raleigh, NC), WSYX-6 (Columbus, OH) and WPVI-6 (Philadelphia, PA)—deceptively weaved pieces of the Raskin VNR into their own stories. The investigative reporter at WSYX-6, Kent Justice, blended a full minute of the VNR into his regular consumer segment, ironically called "On Your Side."

In addition to the VNR, Raskin appeared live in a satellite media tour (SMT), a coordinated series of remote interviews in which a subject interacts directly with the station anchors. The SMT, like the VNR, was coordinated by D S Simon Productions on behalf of Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source. Two stations, KGUN-9 (Tucson, AZ) and WBRC-6 (Birmingham, AL), ran the live SMT without informing viewers that Raskin's appearance was funded by the makers of the very products she was praising.

A month after the Raskin "interview," KGUN-9 aired another SMT featuring homemaking expert Julie Edelman, which was sponsored by five different corporations. WCTI-12 subsequently aired fake news reports from Sallie Mae and DaimlerChrysler. And this report documents KOKH-25 running unlabeled VNRs on five additional occasions, for Trend Micro Software, Intel, Cadillac, Chemistry.com and Towers Perrin.

Robin Raskin was also the featured expert in a technology SMT sponsored by Motorola, Nokia, Texas Instruments and Swiffer. It aired live on three stations.

Update: WBRC-6's station news director Mike McClain has responded to the Center for Media and Democracy. See our WBRC-6 Sourcewatch page for details.

See the original VNR, the SMT, and selected fake news stories in action, below.

Original Client VNR WPGH-53 10PM newscast
Created by DS Simon Productions December 2, 2005
Voiced by publicist Complete VNR with voice of publicist
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WSYX-6 6PM newscast KGUN-9 5AM newscast
November 23, 2005 November 14, 2005
Incorporates parts of VNR SMT interview with Robin Raskin
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Bill Moyers presents "United States of ALEC," a report on the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of -- ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.