The FCC on "Fake News": Who's Trying to Persuade You?

"Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them," noted the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in a Public Notice (PDF file, Word file) released last night.

The Public Notice was precipitated, in part, by the "large number of requests" asking the FCC to "consider whether the use of 'video news releases' or 'VNRs' ... complies with the Commission's sponsorship identification rules." Those requests came from the more than 40,000 people who signed onto a petition circulated by the Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press (you can still sign the petition, here), as well as from two U.S. Senators.

The FCC's Public Notice specifically focuses on instances where "payment has been received or promised to a broadcast licensee or cable operator for the airing of program material." But its implications are much broader, for two reasons. One is that the FCC rules obviously extend beyond instances of news "pay for play." The other is that, by requesting comments and stating its intention to more fully study and act on the issue (including by taking "appropriate enforcement action"), the FCC has publicly recognized "fake news" as an issue critical to, in their words, "a well-functioning democracy."

Here are a few interesting passages from the FCC's Public Notice:

  • "All matter broadcast by any radio station for which any money, service, or other valuable consideration is directly or indirectly paid ... [shall] be announced as paid for or furnished." The Public Notice clarifies that this rule applies to television, but it also suggests that the less-recognized problem of audio news releases infiltrating radio news might be fair game. The phrase "other valuable consideration" suggests that the rule may cover all material provided to news broadcasters by third parties, since these freebies save local broadcasters significant time and resources.
  • There is a "greater obligation of disclosure in connection with political material and program matter dealing with controversial issues." Surely the biggest "fake news" topics are hot precisely because of their controversial nature! The Public Notice adds that information about who is "paying for or furnishing the broadcast matter" on political or controversial issues must be maintained by local stations, "for public inspection at the location of its public file." Sounds like a great opportunity for local activism...

Here's what can you do right now, to help move the Stop Fake News! campaign forward:

  • If you haven't yet, please sign the petition from the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press, protesting the use of VNRs, by clicking here.
  • You can call your members of Congress to voice your opinion on two bills seeking to reiterate and strengthen the ban on covert government propaganda, the Stop Government Propaganda Act in the U.S. Senate (S 266) and the Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 373).
  • Stay tuned to the Center for Media and Democracy's website, Weekly Spin email list and quarterly publication PR Watch, to learn how you can get involved in the evolving campaign to stop fake news!


<p>I just realized two things - one, that the links for the bill texts, above, expire after some length of time. So, if you're trying to get to S 266 or HR 373 and the links aren't working, go to and search by bill number.</p> <p>The other thing is that the S 266 definition for "propaganda" deserves attention unto itself, so I'll post it here:</p> <p>In this Act, the term 'publicity' or 'propaganda' includes--</p> <ol><li>a news release or other publication that does not clearly identify the Government agency directly or indirectly (through a contractor) financially responsible for the message;</li> <li>any audio or visual presentation that does not continuously and clearly identify the Government agency directly or indirectly financially responsible for the message;</li> <li>an Internet message that does not continuously and clearly identify the Government agency directly or indirectly financially responsible for the message;</li> <li>any attempt to manipulate the news media by payment to any journalist, reporter, columnist, commentator, editor, or news organization;</li> <li>any message designed to aid a political party or candidate;</li> <li>any message with the purpose of self-aggrandizement or puffery of the Administration, agency, Executive branch programs or policies, or pending congressional legislation;</li> <li>a message of a nature tending to emphasize the importance of the agency or its activities;</li> <li>a message that is so misleading or inaccurate that it constitutes propaganda; and</li> <li>the preparation, distribution, or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, radio, television, or video presentation designed to support or defeat legislation pending before Congress or any State legislature, except in presentation to Congress or any State legislature itself.</li></ol>

Paul McLeary has written a [|nice critique of the FCC statement] for CJR's CampaignDesk blog: <blockquote> Nice try, but producers and station managers likely see little to fear in statements like "operators generally must clearly disclose ..." This borders on the nonsensical. What exactly is meant by "generally?" Most of the time? Some of the time? At least six times out of 10? Worse, the notice also says that "No sponsorship identification is necessary with regard to material that is furnished to the licensee 'without charge or at a nominal charge.'" Since many VNRs are already given to stations for free, or at worst for a "nominal charge," the new language basically means it's business as usual.</blockquote> Also at CJR, Brian Montopoli points out that "[|these high-profile transgressions don't exist in a vacuum]" but actually reflect the common journalistic practice (in print as well as on TV news) of having reporters rewrite news releases into actual news stories: <blockquote> For what, really, is the point of just rewriting a press release? If you're just regurgitating PR, you might as well just send the press release itself over the wire, or print it in the newspaper -- isn't that ultimately more honest? (Although, admittedly, probably not that good for circulation.) Reshaping a press release into story form without adding any real context, pertinent information, or countervailing opinion isn't journalism, appearances notwithstanding. It's actually not all that different from what a Karen Ryan does -- packaging PR so as it give it the imprimatur of editorial legitimacy.</blockquote>