Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.

Senate Holds "Fake News" Hearing

Anyone who’s ever looked at a package of cigarettes in the United States since 1965 is familiar with the Surgeon General’s warning labels.

The tobacco industry did not want their product being labeled with, “Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.” However, Congress determined that the public interest was best served by ensuring that everyone purchasing cigarettes knew of their ill effects. Providing this information didn’t end smoking (today, 22 percent of U.S. adults use cigarettes), but it helped balance years of Big Tobacco’s deceptive PR by simply presenting the facts in an appropriate, immediate and universal way.

Congress is now engaged in a similar debate about labeling “fake news.” On May 12, public relations and broadcasting industry representatives testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the Truth in Broadcasting Act (S 967). Their remarks were reminiscent of how the tobacco industry responded to the threat of cigarette labeling four decades ago.

The importance of this issue is painfully apparent to anyone familiar with the Armstrong Williams scandal and other cases of “pundit payola.” Fake news is also partly responsible for numerous instances of media deception related to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The current debate centers on a particular type of fake news – prepackaged segments, called audio news releases (ANRs) when produced for radio, and video news releases (VNRs) when produced for television. Government agencies, corporations, industry groups and other large organizations have routinely used ANRs and VNRs since at least the 1980s; some claim VNRs date back to World War II-era newsreels. More recently, media consolidation and shrinking newsroom resources have resulted in broadcasters’ increased reliance on such provided materials. Mounting concerns led the Government Accountability Office to rule in February 2005 that government-sponsored TV “news” reports are covert propaganda, unless their source is apparent to viewers.

Unfortunately, broadcasters commonly air ANRs or VNRs without disclosure. According to a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a quarter to a third of local news directors – by their own admission – disclose the source of VNRs occasionally, rarely or never. Other evidence suggests that non-disclosure may be an even bigger problem.

What Congress is now considering, thanks to increased public awareness and pressure, is how to ensure appropriate disclosure of government-funded “news.”

The Truth in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and John Kerry (D-MA), is one of four Congressional measures recently proposed to deal with fake news. The Act is strong in that it covers ANRs as well as VNRs. It also clearly specifies what constitutes disclosure. For ANRs, a verbal announcement would be required. For VNRs, the phrase “Produced by the U.S. Government” would have to be displayed “conspicuously” throughout the video.

However, the Truth in Broadcasting Act also has serious shortcomings. To begin with, it only addresses government-sponsored ANRs and VNRs, even though private corporations are the main source of fake news. Moreover, the Act doesn’t explicitly cover additional audio or video footage, called radio “actualities” or video “B-roll,” which are usually provided along with the prepackaged segment. Although these materials are not broadcast-ready, their content and presentation are still determined by parties with an interest in how the institutions, events and issues they deal with are perceived.

The Center for Media and Democracy would have loved to send one of our staff members to the recent Senate hearing. After all, industry was well-represented, by the heads of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and one PR firm that produces VNRs. Watchdogs inside the government – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Government Accountability Office – also testified, but no independent, public-interest perspective was represented.

Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran claimed that news broadcasters air VNRs “rarely” and neglect to disclose their source “even more rarely.” Cochran pointed out that RTNDA’s ethics code has called for “clear and complete disclosure” of provided materials since 1989 – but neglected to inform the committee that her Association does not monitor compliance with or enforce its code.

PRSA president Judith Phair fretted about the fate of the “free flow of information,” should the Act pass. She expressed support for the “intent of the legislation,” but said its “rigid requirements and specifications” would make using provided materials “so onerous and inappropriate” that broadcasters might forgo them altogether. Similar to Cochran, Phair presented PRSA’s code of ethics as proof of the public relations industry’s noble practices. (Once again, merely having an ethics code doesn’t necessarily translate into compliance. In twelve years of reporting on PR firms’ legal and ethical breaches, the Center for Media and Democracy has yet to run out of material.)

Doug Simon of the VNR-producing firm D S Simon Productions warned that the Act might result in federal agencies either decreasing efforts to inform the public, or turning to more deceptive practices, such as funneling VNRs through think tanks or other third parties. On a more philosophical level, Simon ominously stated that “increased government control over news broadcasts” is not a “hallmark of democracy.”

Holding a Senate hearing on fake news is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction. However, Commerce Committee Co-chair Senator Ted Stevens – who expressed interest in knowing “who was behind the propaganda” declaring his home state of Alaska “pristine” and opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – appeared perhaps too eager to accommodate industry concerns.

Stevens repeatedly voiced support for delaying any further Congressional action until late July, after the end of the comment period on the FCC’s Public Notice on VNRs. This despite assurances from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Acting General Counsel Austin Schlick that the issue before Congress and the FCC’s Public Notice are like proverbial apples and oranges. (The FCC ensures broadcast licensees act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, while Congress is considering new disclosure requirements for broadcast materials sponsored by federal agencies.)

More seriously, Stevens seemed to accept at face value the industry representatives’ alarmist rhetoric against the “long arm of the government” in the newsroom. He suggested that the Byrd amendment – recently passed by the Senate, but only in force during fiscal year 2005, which ends in September – might be a better legislative model than the Truth in Broadcasting Act. The problem with the Byrd amendment is that it calls for “a clear notification” of government sponsorship, without specifying what that means. It’s also unclear whether the Byrd amendment covers ANRs, or just VNRs.

Nothing would suit the PR and broadcast industries better than vague and toothless legislation that effectively maintains the status quo. The reality is that the “long arm of the government” – and, to a greater extent, the long arm of corporations, industry groups and other large organizations – are already in the newsroom, shaping what the public sees, hears and reads.

Currently, only a handful of extreme situations trigger ANR and VNR disclosure requirements. These include when the broadcaster is paid to air them; when broadcasters deem their content to be “political or controversial” – a vague restriction that, in practice, requires public complaints to the FCC, after they’ve aired (and assumes viewers can identify such footage); or when government agencies admit that their goal in producing them is to persuade, rather than inform, the public.

Like their predecessors in the 1960s, members of Congress must summon the courage to act in the public interest, over industry opposition. Full disclosure should be required for all government-produced and -funded ANRs (including extra actualities) and VNRs (including extra B-roll). The FCC must also act to address the far more prevalent problem of privately-funded fake news, by requiring broadcasters to identify the source of all provided broadcast material.

Until those important steps are taken, the U.S. information environment will remain as hazy, and as polluting, as a smoke-filled room.

DIANE FARSETTA is a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin. She can be reached at:




















More articles by:

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at:

October 16, 2018
Gregory Elich
Diplomatic Deadlock: Can U.S.-North Korea Diplomacy Survive Maximum Pressure?
Rob Seimetz
Talking About Death While In Decadence
Kent Paterson
Fifty Years of Mexican October
Robert Fantina
Trump, Iran and Sanctions
Greg Macdougall
Indigenous Suicide in Canada
Kenneth Surin
On Reading the Diaries of Tony Benn, Britain’s Greatest Labour Politician
Thomas Knapp
Facebook Meddles in the 2018 Midterm Elections
Muhammad Othman
Khashoggi and Demetracopoulos
Gerry Brown
Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics: How the US Weaponizes Them to Accuse  China of Debt Trap Diplomacy
Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker – Peter Lehman
The Brazilian Presidential Elections and “The Rules of The Game”
Robert Fisk
What a Forgotten Shipwreck in the Irish Sea Can Tell Us About Brexit
Martin Billheimer
Here Cochise Everywhere
David Swanson
Humanitarian Bombs
Dean Baker
The Federal Reserve is Not a Church
October 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Climate Crisis is Upon Us
Conn Hallinan
Syria’s Chessboard
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Atrocities in Yemen are a Worse Story Than the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Middle East Delusions Persist
Justin T. McPhee
Uberrima Fides? Witness K, East Timor and the Economy of Espionage
Tom Gill
Spain’s Left Turn?
Jeff Cohen
Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
Marvin Kitman
The Kitman Plan for Peace in the Middle East: Two Proposals
Weekend Edition
October 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
My History with Alexander Cockburn and The Financial Future of CounterPunch
Paul Street
For Popular Sovereignty, Beyond Absurdity
Nick Pemberton
The Colonial Pantsuit: What We Didn’t Want to Know About Africa
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Summer of No Return
Jeff Halper
Choices Made: From Zionist Settler Colonialism to Decolonization
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Incident: Trump’s Special Relationship With the Saudi Monarchy
Andrew Levine
Democrats: Boost, Knock, Enthuse
Barbara Kantz
The Deportation Crisis: Report From Long Island
Doug Johnson
Nate Silver and 538’s Measurable 3.5% Democratic Bias and the 2018 House Race
Gwen Carr
This Stops Today: Seeking Justice for My Son Eric Garner
Robert Hunziker
Peak Carbon Emissions By 2020, or Else!
Arshad Khan
Is There Hope on a World Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius?
David Rosen
Packing the Supreme Court in the 21stCentury
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Threats of Death and Destruction
Joel A. Harrison
The Case for a Non-Profit Single-Payer Healthcare System
Ramzy Baroud
That Single Line of Blood: Nassir al-Mosabeh and Mohammed al-Durrah