Back in 2009, Journal Broadcast Corporation’s KTNV-TV in Las Vegas ran a series of “special reports” on the liquidation sales of auto dealerships formatted like news stories, aired immediately adjacent to the station’s weekend newscasts, with a “staff person…posing as a journalist” in each one. Surprise: the dealerships paid for the “coverage.” After a five-year investigation, Journal and the FCC entered into a consent decree released on Friday that has Journal fessing up to the deception and making a voluntary contriubtion of $115,000 to the U.S. Treasury.
According to the decree, the caper was the brainchild of Vegas-area advertising agency, and the complainant was another TV station in the market. It originally alleged that three stations were involved in the pay-for-coverage business, but the FCC’s only dimed one of them. Between May and August 2009, KTNV ran 27 of these “special reports.”
In addition to the $115k payment, Journal will face some increased scrutiny by the FCC in the form of a compliance plan whereby the company certifies itself free of sponsored-news temptations for the next year and a half. Journal’s actions in this matter, by the terms of the decree, will not be counted against its qualifications to hold broadcast licenses over the long term.
FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc sounds pretty proud of the deal. “Broadcasters are not allowed to deceive the public by presenting commercial announcements or other paid programming in the guise of news or editorial content,” he crowed.
If any of this sounds familiar, it both should and should not. I’ve been tussling with the FCC for the better part of a year now attempting to get it to explain why it issued a similar penalty against a radio station regarding its airing of reports from a legitimate news organization. In that case, the station was fined $4,000 per broadcast and received no special dispensation from the Commission; in this case, Journal’s negotiated forfeiture works out to $4,259 and change. In both cases, the stations were required to air sponsorship identification but did not.
When context is considered, however, the comparison breaks down. In the radio case, the station made the equivalent of a clerical error that led to a failure of sponsorship identification in a fraction of the instances during which it aired legitimate news stories. In the case of KTNV, the station conspired directly with advertisers to fabricate bogus “special reports” that actively masqueraded as news and were strategically scheduled next to actual news. The only saving grace (if there is one) on KTNV’s part is that it did not coerce a member of its news staff into participating in the charade. Apparently, a broadcast’s origin and intent is but a $250 differentiator.
If transparency is truly key in cases like these, then the FCC whiffed pretty hard on this case. And since it’s a negotiated settlement we are not privy to the FCC’s enforcement timeline nor the rationale by which it made its decision. While I wholeheartedly support it, the public still deserves a better explanation than platitudes, especially when it comes to making determinations on the legitimacy of journalism.