The RTNDA Undermines TV Journalism—with a little help from the most powerful pro-consolidation media lobbyist. RTNDA asks for a cover-up of the VNR scandal

The Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) is working to further undermine the ability of TV reporters and producers to engage in serious electronic journalism. In a nearly two dozen-page filing to the FCC on October 5, RTNDA comes to the defense of the use of Video News Releases. RTNDA actually told the Commission “…VNRs often are a source of newsworthy material of particular interest to the public which stations may not be able to obtain through other means.” Why would the RTNDA support the practice of using VNRs? It’s because the organization is both shortsighted and a political tool of TV owners. RTNDA doesn’t really represent the interests of reporters—but the bosses. It is trying to quash an FCC investigation into 77 TV stations identified in a report for failing to disclose VNRs. Everyone in the news biz knows that the reliance on VNRs—even by network O and O’s– is a cancer on electronic journalism. VNRs—placed by both commercial and government PR efforts—undermine serious reportage. But with station owners and news managers forcing local news to be a ever growing profit center, VNRs have become a form of information `cocaine.’ Too many stations are willing to sell time for the promotion of propaganda at worst and stealth commercial spots at best. Or they want to rely on free materials coming from special interests in order to save money on actually producing their own news.

Richard Wiley
The RTNDA should be telling the FCC that such outside “spin” oriented content should be prohibited by the industry itself. News should be produced by a local station, its contractors, network feeds, wires. Not by a pyramid scheme coming from PR flacks. One sign that RTNDA is working for owners—and not journalists or the public—is the use of arch media lobbyist Richard Wiley’s law firm [that’s Mr. Wiley’s picture above]. It is the Wiley firm which has been leading the media lobby campaign to wipe out ownership diversity safeguards—all so its clients can control more properties both in a single community and nationally.

The RTNDA wants the FCC to immediately kill its investigation of the stations involved in the VNR scandal. Incredibly, the RTNDA told the FCC that by investigating the charges made by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), it is “following the lead of an organization that is unrelenting in its hostility to the principles of free speech and a free press…” Such venomous, inaccurate, and out-right loony language illustrates how out of touch RTNDA’s leadership is. An organization concerned about electronic journalism requires leaders who place the First Amendment rights of TV reporters, producers and the public first. Not, as RTNDA just did, the political agenda of station owners, the National Association of Broadcasters, and media lobbyists such as Dick Wiley.

We think the RTNDA is violating its own Code of Ethics, which requires that “[P]rofessional electronic journalists should recognize that their first obligation is to the public.” We hope there are board members courageous enough to call for the organization to re-think its whole approach to media policy.

Disclosure: My organization occasionally works with a close colleague of CMD—Free Press. I also admire the work of CMD—which has done a first-rate job at exposing the invisible connections between the public relations industry, its clients, and public policy. I don’t believe, as Wiley argues, that such an FCC investigation will have a chilling effect. There do need to be limits about what government can do with the news media. But when news organizations act irresponsibly in a way that deceives the public, action is required. What is wrong—Ms. Cochran and Mr. Wiley—with a little sunshine?

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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