Monday, October 31, 2005
ADVERTISING: FAIR's report on ad influence over news, April 2005
Fear & Favor 2004 . FAIR's Fifth Annual Report
How power shapes the news
Extra! March/April 2005
By Peter Hart and Julie Hollar
Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine
Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show
Julie Hollar is the communications director for FAIR. A graduate of Rice
University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated
communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar
has also been active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.
.We can get five reporters a month to do news stories about your product. If
you want to be interviewed by 10 to 20 reporters per month, we can arrange
that, too. . . . Media Relations, Inc. has placed tens of thousands of news
stories on behalf of more than 1,000 clients.
.Media Relations, Inc. solicitation
The PR agency.s promises are a stark reminder that the news is, in many ways, a
collision of different interests. The traditional tenets of journalism are
challenged and undermined by other factors: Advertisers demand .friendly copy,.
while other commercial interests work to place news items that serve the same
function as advertising. Media owners exert pressure to promote the parent
company.s self-interest. Powerful local and national interests demand softball
treatment. And government power is exerted to craft stories, influence
content.and even to make up phony .news. that can be passed off as the real
Journalists, on the whole, understand these pressures all too well. A survey of
media workers by four industry labor unions (Media Professionals and Their
Industry, 7/20/04) found respondents concerned about .pressure from advertisers
trying to shape coverage. as well as .outside control of editorial policy.. In
May, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a survey of
media professionals that found reporters concerned about how bottom-line
pressures were affecting news quality and integrity. In their summary of the
report, Bill Kovach, Tom Rosensteil and Amy Mitchell wrote that journalists
.report more cases of advertisers and owners breaching the independence of the
The Fear & Favor report is an attempt to illustrate this growing encroachment
on journalism with real examples that have been made public.not an exhaustive
list by any means, but a reminder that such pressures exist, and that reporters
serve the best interests of citizens and the journalistic profession by coming
forward with their own accounts.
In Advertisers We Trust
USA Today (5/18/04) served notice that corporate advertisers have a remarkable
influence over what we see on the TV screen. As the paper noted, in the media
world .there is worry that the flood of grisly images flowing into living rooms
from Iraq and elsewhere will discourage advertisers.
A General Motors spokesperson explained that her company .would not advertise
on a TV program [just] about atrocities in Iraq,. while an ad exec explained
that .you don.t want to run a humorous commercial next to horrific images and
stories.. A Ford representative said the company keeps a close eye on news
images that accompany its ads, saying, .We.re monitoring the content and will
make decisions based on the nature of the content. But we don.t have a lot of
But they do, of course. Commercial media wouldn.t exist without, well, the
commercials. And in order to keep the revenue flowing, media outlets
increasingly blur the lines between their advertising and editorial divisions.
. When a super-sized corporation comes to town, it brings along an ad budget to
match, and newspapers sometimes seem more than willing to suspend the rules of
critical journalism to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy new arrival. When
furniture giant Ikea opened a new store in New Haven, Connecticut, the New
Haven Register cranked out 12 Ikea stories in eight straight days.accompanied
by at least 17 photographs and a sidebar on product information.with headlines
such as .Ikea.s Focus on Child Labor Issues Reflects Ethic of Social
Responsibility. (7/25/04) and .Ikea Employees Take Pride in Level of
Responsibility Company Affords Them. (7/27/04). The Register.s Ikea reporter
was even sent to Sweden to visit the company.s headquarters.on Ikea.s dime,
according to Columbia Journalism Review (11.12/04), a little detail the
Register failed to disclose.
The back-scratching reached its apex the day of the grand opening, when the
Register (7/28/04) heralded the arrival of Ikea and fellow super-store Wal-Mart
and remarked upon Ikea.s .astonishingly low prices.a coffee table for $99, a
flowing watering can for $1.99, a woven rocking chair, $59.. Sound like an ad?
It was the Register.s lead editorial.
. While Register readers could have mistaken the paper.s news for advertising,
Boston Herald readers on January 7 could easily have mistaken the paper.s
front-page ad for news. When discount airline JetBlue launched several new
flight services out of Boston.s Logan Airport, Bostonians who picked up a free
promotional Herald that day found that every item on the front page was devoted
exclusively to the airline, including the lead headline, .JetBlue Arrives,
Promises a Free TV to All Who Fly,. and teasers like .Flight Attendant Gives
Passenger Entire Can of Soda.. After the front page, the paper resumed its
actual news content.but nowhere did the Herald indicate that its front page was
in fact a paid advertisement, and the 20,000 recipients of the promo paper
missed out on the actual front-page news of the day (BostonPhoenix.com,
When asked about the stunt, a Herald spokesperson said the paper had produced
the .mock. front page .to commemorate JetBlue.s launch into the Boston market.
(WBUR.org, 1/9/04). She did acknowledge that .We probably should have said
something . . . that indicated it wasn.t our real front page,. but wouldn.t
rule out future front-page promos.
. When Kirksville, Missouri.s KTVO-TV ran a news report that quoted a company
that didn.t advertise on the station rather than a competitor that did, the
angry advertiser pulled its ads from the station. KTVO vice president and
general manager Crystal Amini-Rad quickly apologized to the sales staff in a
memo that also required news reporters to .have access to an active advertiser
list . . . of sources which you can tap into. for expert opinion and industry
comment.and told reporters that they .should always go. to station advertisers
first on any story (Columbia Journalism Review, 9.10/04).
. When Silver City, New Mexico.s KNFT brought on progressive host Kyle Johnson
as an alternative to the seven hours of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Bill
O.Reilly the station aired every weekday, KNFT.s advertisers boycotted the
show. The station made Johnson raise the cash to pay for his airtime, and his
listeners anted up. But the advertisers threatened to boycott the entire
station if Johnson stayed on; faced with the prospect of a nearly
$10,000-a-month loss, the station manager reluctantly gave the progressive host
the boot (Silver City Sun-News, 7/21/04).
Powerful Players & PR
It.s not just advertisers who have the clout to bend the rules of journalism.
People in powerful positions have long pulled strings to influence news
coverage, with journalists sometimes acting as witting accomplices.
. When a journalist at Bloomberg News filed a report about a civil suit against
Deutsche Bank (12/5/04), it didn.t seem like a particularly remarkable story; a
former female employee was accusing the company of firing her for complaining
about, among other things, sexual harassment by Damian Kissane, a former
Deutsche Bank exec. But to the surprise of the newsroom staff, editor-in-chief
Matthew Winkler had it purged from the Bloomberg website and replaced six days
later with a bowdlerized version that deleted the names of all parties
involved. Shortly afterwards, he issued a memo to the staff, admonishing that
Bloomberg News .must never be a mouthpiece for litigants who want to publish
court filings to embarrass or gain an advantage over their opponents..
Winkler claimed the story .lacked context. and a sense of .why do we care about
this. (Washington Post, 1/5/05). The New York Post (12/24/04) reported that
Kissane, now Chief Operating Officer of the financial markets branch of the
Royal Bank of Scotland, was said to have complained to Winkler. Bloomberg
insiders cited by the New York Post suggested that Winkler rewrote the story in
response to Kissane.s complaint.perhaps unsurprisingly, since Bloomberg.s main
business is selling market information to the financial industry.
. When St. Paul, Minnesota.s KSTP-TV needed a new lead anchor, it picked
someone with years of experience.in PR. Cyndy Brucato had started at KSTP in
the early .80s, but then moved on to communications work for Republican
politicians, and for the previous eight years ran a PR firm, Halliday &
Brucato, with her husband. There her clients ranged from the Minnesota House
Republican Caucus to big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies. Brucato also
held a state government position on the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards,
which she didn.t give up when she started her journalism job.
Brucato argued that she had quit seeing clients at the firm and said she would
disclose any conflicts of interest as they arose. Of course, ceasing to see
clients hardly removes the financial interest involved; the firm is still run
by her husband, and she noted that it .is something I have some equity in.
(City Pages, 8/4/04).
. Courts have consistently ruled that university administrations have to keep
their noses out of college papers. business, but that didn.t deter Arizona
State University president Michael Crow. When ASU.s State Press (10/7/04) ran a
picture of a female breast with a pierced nipple on the cover of its weekly
magazine supplement, Ira Fulton, who had given ASU $58 million in the previous
year and a half, called Crow.s office to complain. Crow immediately dispatched
the student affairs president to warn the paper that .funding will be suspended
ASAP if not corrected..
Virgil Renzulli, ASU.s vice president for public affairs, claimed the real
issue was that the State Press didn.t have a clearly defined content policy; to
the students. response that they follow the Society for Professional
Journalists. code of ethics, he replied, .We think that there may be guidelines
more appropriate for student journalists than the ones for other news
organizations. (AP, 11/26/04).
Though the administration insisted Fulton.s complaint had nothing to do with
the crackdown, Crow wrote him an October 16 letter assuring him that .the
Office of Student Affairs will be monitoring the newspaper.s forthcoming
editorial decisions very closely and working with its management to ensure that
the University.s standards are clearly understood. I appreciate your direct
engagement on this matter. (Phoenix New Times, 11/18/04).
As Crow told the Arizona Republic (11/20/04), .I don.t think we want [the State
Press] off campus. I think as an investor in the business, we want some say in
how it.s run.. Now there.s an education in how the media really works.
The Boss. Business
When conservatives complained that CBS was promoting Bush critic Richard Clarke
on 60 Minutes without disclosing that his book Against All Enemies was
published by Free Press, another Viacom subsidiary, CBS responded (Hollywood
Reporter, 3/23/04) by saying that the show .has interviewed authors from
virtually all the book publishing companies over its 36 seasons and is beholden
to none of them. Publishers seek out 60 Minutes because it is television.s No.
1 newsmagazine.. But the question is not whether authors wouldn.t want to get
on 60 Minutes if they didn.t work for the same company; the question is, are we
really supposed to believe they don.t get preferential consideration when they
As a report in the American Journalism Review noted (11.12/04), comments filed
with the FCC regarding its ownership regulations provided some concrete
examples that such mutual back-scratching does go on. AJR quoted a newspaper
reporter whose bosses also owned a TV station:
When the Nielsen TV ratings come out, I know I am expected to write a big story
if the co-owned station.s ratings are good and to bury the story if the
co-owned station.s ratings are down. Or another example. A few years ago, I ran
a survey asking readers what they thought of local television news programs. My
general manager told me the next time I do something that might affect our
sister station, I better check with him first. I got the message. I haven.t
done a similar project since then.
. The violation of the boundary between news and entertainment is perhaps
nowhere as flagrant as on network .newsmagazine. shows. As a May 14 Los Angeles
Times story explained, the NBC News program Dateline found plenty of news value
in the entertainment offerings of NBC. .Despite criticism that NBC.s news
programs have been turned into brazen marketing tools for several of the
network.s prime-time series finales,. the Times reported, .the management of
the combined company seems delighted with the promotional firepower of its
enterprise.. The Times cited, among other things, the two-hour Dateline
(5/5/04) devoted to the final episode of the sitcom Friends, as well as
generous coverage of the NBC sitcom Frasier and the Donald Trump .reality. show
Thanks to NBC.s recent acquisition of Universal, network news president Neal
Shapiro looks forward to NBC news programs getting first crack at interviewing
movie stars affiliated with Universal films. He dismissed criticisms of this
blurring of the lines between news and entertainment as .asinine. (L.A. Times,
NBC Today anchor Katie Couric, interviewing Trump, remarked that he .seems to
be the fifth member of the show these days . . . I have confidence you.re going
to be here a lot in the fall.. To which Trump replied, .Jeff Zucker will not
allow it to be any other way, will he?. Zucker is, as Newsday.s Verne Gay noted
(4/21/04), .president of NBC.s Entertainment, News and Cable Group and a
leading proponent of a practice known in TV parlance as .cross-promotion...
. During the May .sweeps. period (when advertising rates are set based on
audience share), TV Guide (6/11/04) counted over 117 minutes of NBC promotions
on the Today show. CBS.s Early Show, which runs an hour less than Today,
finished second with just over 107 minutes. ABC.s Good Morning America came in
last with just under 36 minutes of self-promotion. Former morning show producer
Steve Friedman told the magazine that .it.s inevitable that a morning show or a
magazine show will do these segments,. adding: .You.d be a fool not to do it.
It.s a business..
. Washington Post TV reporter Lisa de Moraes (8/6/04) catalogued the
self-promotion she found in just that day.s listings. ABC.s 20/20 profiled
reality TV star Victoria Gotti, whose Growing Up Gotti program just happened to
be airing on the A&E cable channel.owned by ABC parent Disney. Over at CBS, the
48 Hours newsmagazine profiled Yoanna House, who lost 60 pounds to try out for
America.s Next Top Model, a reality show airing on the UPN network.which, like
CBS, is owned by Viacom. De Moraes pointedly remarked: .Remember how the
broadcast networks explained that they would cover only three hours of each of
the four-day Democratic and Republican conventions because they are nothing
more than infomercials out of which no real news comes?. _
. The network that pays for the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games always
happens to find the Olympics far more newsworthy than its network competitors.
In 2004, according to the Tyndall Report.s tally of network newscast coverage
(8/28/04), NBC Nightly News devoted 106 minutes of news time to the Athens
events; by comparison, ABC dedicated 34 minutes of news time, and CBS only 15.
NBC executive producer Tom Touchet, who works on the Today show, felt no
conflict, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (8/14/04) that .his bosses
haven.t asked him to do anything he wasn.t comfortable with..
. On July 9, ABC.s 20/20 presented a segment on the legend of King Arthur.
While that might be an odd topic for a newsmagazine show, even more unusual was
one of the guest .experts. chosen to share his views on the subject: Hollywood
bigwig Jerry Bruckheimer, whose .expertise. consisted in being the producer of
the new Disney film King Arthur. As the Christian Science Monitor (8/27/04)
noted, .If the weakness of Bruckheimer.s grasp of Arthurian lore was obvious,
the connection between his movie and ABC television wasn.t. Only at the end of
the segment did the reporter mention that Disney owns ABC..
As the Monitor explained, Disney/ABC felt no need to even conjure up a good
explanation for the decision: .The movie producer was included in the show for
business reasons, not because he was the most knowledgeable source,
acknowledges David Westin, president of ABC News. .It made good sense for us,
frankly,. he says, .to take advantage of all the marketing and publicity for
Government and Other .Official. Pressure
The relationship between the press and government should, in theory, be a
somewhat confrontational one. When stories surface that local governments are
refusing to speak to certain reporters or media outlets, one can only hope that
in some way this means the media in question are doing their job, and
politicians are angry about it.
Government officials also know that applying a little pressure to the media can
go a long way. It.s worth remembering that these same media companies are often
engaged in high-stakes lobbying, trying to extract favors from federal or state
regulators they.re also obligated to cover.so even if they don.t cave in to
pressure, they.re not often eager to embarrass the officials who applied it.
Occasionally, though, some examples of government pressure attempts are made
public. When celebrity reporter Kitty Kelley was promoting her critical book
about the Bush family, a White House official called NBC News president Neal
Shapiro to discourage the network from doing interviews with her (New York
Even some of the most celebrated journalism is affected by government pressure:
CBS.s April 28 investigation of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in
Iraq, for example, was held for two weeks at the request of the Pentagon.
It.s not just that press-state relations are often uncontentious; sometimes
they.re downright cozy. When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to
New York for the Republican National Convention, the tab wasn.t picked up by
the GOP, or even the state he serves; instead, a handful of the largest media
companies in the country.including Fox, NBC Universal, TimeWarner, Disney and
Viacom.paid the bill (New York Times, 8/26/04).
. At the Austin American-Statesman, editorial page editor Arnold Garcia Jr. got
what other reporters might have considered a scoop: Local business
Temple-Inland Inc. was planning a major.and potentially controversial.expansion
of its corporate headquarters. But instead of reporting the news, he suppressed
Garcia got the tip while playing golf with Austin Mayor Will Wynn. Later, when
Garcia e-mailed Wynn for more information, the mayor told the editor that he.d
rather the information not appear in print, since he wanted time to line up
political support for the company.s decision, which was likely to encounter
stiff environmental opposition.
News of the company.s plans leaked out two months after Garcia first learned of
them, thanks to an investigation by a local environmental group. Their digging
yielded more bad news; as Garcia explained in a column to the paper.s readers
(1/29/04): .Worse, in an incredible lapse of judgment, I offered to send a
draft [to Wynn] of whatever editorial resulted..
. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson no doubt appreciated the effusive speech that
welcomed him to the Border Governors Conference. Richardson, attendees learned,
.has done more for New Mexico in two legislative sessions than any previous
governor accomplished in decades.. No small praise, especially considering the
source: Monica Armenta, an anchor at New Mexico TV station KOB. To make matters
worse, Armenta didn.t even write the words herself.that was left to the
governor.s staff. Armenta told the American Journalism Review (10. 11/04) that
she.d learned her lesson, though she added, .I.ve done hundreds of these over
the years, and so have many other people in this market..
. Upsetting the political applecart is part of a journalist.s job.but it might
cost them that job.
Rep. Nick Smith.s (R.- Mich.) intention to vote against George W. Bush.s 2003
Medicare drug plan didn.t sit well with powerful GOP lawmakers, who Smith said
made him an offer: If he changed his vote, his son Brad, who wanted to run for
his father.s congressional seat, would receive $100,000 in campaign support.
Smith not only stuck to his .no. vote, he told people about the alleged bribe,
with the story eventually making its way into the news, including a Robert
Novak syndicated column (11/27/03).
Soon afterward, Smith tried to revise his tale, issuing a press release
(12/4/03) that denied the $100,000 offer. But reporter Kevin Vandenbroek of
radio station WKZO (12/1/03) came forward with evidence that made Smith.s new
denial hard to swallow: a tape of an interview where Smith discussed the
.$100,000-plus. offered to his son.s campaign.
Vandenbroek.s scoop, however, didn.t please everyone at his station; according
to Slate (3/24/04), while some station officials were proud of his work, .there
were others that might have been uncomfortable that it was focusing on a member
of the Republican Party.. A few weeks later, Vandenbroek reported that George
W. Bush made several dubious claims in an interview with NBC, which prompted a
phone call to the station from local Republican officials. Vandenbroek told
Slate that after that incident, .I got called in and told to stay away from
politics.. The station eventually dismissed Vandenbroek for violating company
e-mail policy following an exchange with a far-right author who refused to
appear on the station.
As Slate.s Timothy Noah put it, .Vandenbroek.s prominence in reporting a major
political story ought to make WKZO proud. Instead, it apparently made the
Kalamazoo radio station nervous..
Op-Ed.s Odd Ethics
. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had some regrets after running an op-ed (5/18/04)
by syndicated columnist James Glassman, in which Glassman slammed the new
documentary Super Size Me, which takes a critical look at McDonald.s. The paper
identified Glassman, who called the film an .outrageously dishonest and
dangerous piece of self-promotion,. as a fellow at the conservative American
Enterprise Institute and as the host of a website called
TechCentralStation.com. But as a May 20 editor.s note acknowledged, had the
Post-Dispatch actually looked at TechCentralStation.com, it would have
discovered that McDonald.s is prominently listed as a sponsor, and perhaps also
noticed .the lavish spinoff website that TechCentralStation.com has devoted
solely to discrediting Super Size Me.. Readers, the paper noted, likely would
have appreciated knowing of this affiliation.
Less than a month later, Glassman struck again: In a June 6 Los Angeles Times
op-ed co-authored by a TCS colleague, he attacked .left-wing activists. for
trying to force Abbott Laboratories to give up its patent on Norvir, an
important AIDS drug, after the company jacked the drug.s price up by 400
percent. But once again, left unmentioned was the connection between TCS and
the company it was defending: Abbott is a member of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical
trade association, which, like McDonald.s, is a TCS funder (Center for American
Glassman.s particularly popular in the Washington Times: Three times in as many
months, the paper published op-eds by Glassman that pushed views and policies
that would directly favor TCS sponsors. Glassman praised Bush policies that
have been a financial boon to tech companies like TCS backers Intel, Microsoft
and Qualcomm (10/27/04); blasted the use of generic anti-AIDS drugs in
developing countries, another threat to PhRMA (11/17/04); and trashed global
warming science and the Kyoto Protocol (12/16/04), which are both anathema to
TCS sponsor ExxonMobil. Not once was his TCS affiliation or relationship to the
. When the Austin Chronicle.s William M. Adler read a pro-nuclear-industry
op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman by University of Texas professor Sheldon
Landsberger (3/4/04), he thought it sounded strangely familiar. After some
enterprising digging, Adler confirmed his hunch: Landsberger.s piece contained
phrases nearly identical to those in an op-ed by another academic, both of whom
had agreed to sign their names to pro-industry columns written entirely by
nuclear industry propagandists.
Landsberger.s column argued that the public was being burned by the federal
government because the feds were failing to provide sufficient funds for
developing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. In the op-ed, the
nuclear industry lobbyist who actually wrote the column remarked: .This is
stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste management
According to the Chronicle (4/16/04), Landsberger, a nuclear engineering
professor, admits that he.s been allowing his name and university position to
be used like this by the nuclear industry two or three times a year for the
past four or five years. And as Adler documents, the industry has been placing
ghost-written columns for decades under various names.
The Statesman ran a letter of apology from Landsberger in its letters to the
editor section on April 14. While that.s a welcome correction, it.s hardly a
solution to the problem. As Bill Perkins, a founding partner of the PR firm
responsible for Landsberger.s op-eds, said (Washington Post, 4/25/04): .I doubt
that there is a public affairs campaign by any advocacy group in the country
that doesn.t have some version of this. . . . This is fairly
PBS: Bowing Under Pressure
Public broadcasters have a more explicit reliance on government than commercial
broadcasters: They survive in part on federal and state funding. With that
relationship comes the danger that public broadcasters, who have an explicit
obligation to present divergent and underrepresented views, will bow to
After South Carolina Educational Television aired a documentary on gays in the
South, a state lawmaker threatened to cut the agency.s funding. Though the
program in question was not funded by SCETV, state Rep. John Graham Altman was
incensed that the .militant homosexual agenda. found a home on public TV
(Associated Press, 11/28/04). AP noted that the agency.s funding had already
declined as of late.from $20.3 million to $12.7 million in the past four years.
No action has been taken as of early 2005.
But consider the rightward drift of PBS, and you see how political pressure
works. In 2004, PBS scaled back Now With Bill Moyers from one hour to 30
minutes.even as Moyers retired and was replaced by a less political host.and
added two shows from a distinctly conservative perspective: Tucker Carlson
Unfiltered and the Wall Street Journal Editorial Report.
According to reports in the public broadcasting newspaper Current (1/19/04,
6/7/04) and the New Yorker (6/7/04), conservative lawmakers. complaints about
the alleged liberal bias of Now led PBS officials to strive to .balance. their
lineup. At the center of this controversy is the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting (CPB), the organization through which federal funding is
distributed to public broadcasting.
During confirmation hearings for CPB appointee Cheryl Halpern, Sen. Trent Lott
(R.-Miss.) criticized a commentary by Moyers as .the most blatantly partisan,
irresponsible thing I.ve ever heard in my life,. adding that .the CPB has not
seemed to be willing to deal with Bill Moyers and that type of programming..
Halpern responded: .The fact of the matter is, I agree,. though she said at the
time there was little the CPB could do about it.
But there was something the CPB could do. According to Ken Auletta.s
investigation in the New Yorker, PBS president Pat Mitchell was meeting with
Lynne Cheney and conservative television producer Michael Pack to discuss a
possible series about Cheney.s children.s books. And after former House Speaker
Newt Gingrich told Mitchell that there weren.t enough conservatives on PBS, the
New Yorker reported that Mitchell .proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS
town-hall program,. an idea that was frustrated by Gingrich.s contract with Fox
When the committee reconvened in late July, Lott .noted progress. on the
subject of liberal bias (Public Broadcasting Report, 7/23/04). That senators
like Lott hold public broadcasting.s purse strings tells you all you need to
know about PBS.s public affairs programming..P.H.