FCC Commissioner: TV Charity Drives Could Mean Payola

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wants the agency to investigate whether sponsors of TV drives are buying their way onto news reports.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wants the agency to investigate whether sponsors of TV drives are buying their way onto news reports. (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

An official of the Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed an investigation into "sponsored" charitable drives by TV stations, saying such campaigns are "a serious breach of the public's trust" and potentially illegal.

Local stations, including WRC (Channel 4) and WUSA (Channel 9), regularly solicit paying sponsors for the stations' charitable efforts, such as a toy or food drive. As detailed in a story in The Washington Post on Wednesday, the sponsors pay the stations for commercials promoting themselves and the charity, and then are featured in the stations' news coverage. The stations typically don't disclose these arrangements to viewers, which critics say violates journalistic ethics by blurring the distinction between advertising and news.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat and one of five members, said the practices outlined in the story should be investigated by the agency as part of a series of ongoing probes concerning payola, an illegal practice in which a TV or radio station receives money for air time without disclosing the source of the compensation.

"There appears to be a lot of smoke here, and we need to find out if there's a fire beneath it," Adelstein said in an interview yesterday. In a statement, he added, "A broadcaster's failure to fully disclose to the public that it receives financial benefits from the employer of an on-air 'expert' guest is not just corrupt journalism, it's potentially illegal.

"To give certain companies air time simply because they have made undisclosed payments to the broadcaster is a serious breach of the public's trust. The FCC needs to investigate all potential violations of our payola and sponsorship identification laws. We need to get to the bottom of this."

Separately, Free Press, a media-reform advocacy group, said it would file a complaint today with the FCC over the same issues. The group, based in Massachusetts, helped spur an FCC investigation into the Bush administration's payments to pundit Armstrong Williams to promote secretly the No Child Left Behind Act in radio and TV appearances.

Free Press campaign director Timothy Karr said his group wants the FCC to strengthen its sponsor identification rules, which require broadcasters to announce when they have received compensation for an editorial segment. "The FCC has not determined clear guidelines," he said.

In addition to WRC and WUSA, another local station, WJLA (Channel 7), also has produced news stories pegged to a paying sponsor. WJLA airs personal finance reports called "Choose to Save" that are linked http://choosetosave.org/ , an advertiser on WJLA and its Web site. Choose to Save, created by the Employee Benefits Research Institute of Washington, is a nonprofit concern that promotes saving and retirement planning.

Choose to Save's director, Variny Paladino, said yesterday that her organization buys time on Channel 7, but does not determine its news coverage. "WJLA is very serious about the division between news and advertising," she said. Asked why it is the only station in Washington that airs reports using the "Choose to Save" slogan, and why the station interviewed EBRI's chief executive, Dallas Salisbury, in a Sept. 26 news report, she said, "They have really taken our mission to heart."

WJLA officials did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Other local TV executives continued to defend their melding of public service, paid advertising and news coverage.

"I think what we're doing is a service to the community," said Darryll Green, president and general manager of WUSA. If sponsors "can increase the message" about a charity by buying additional advertising on the station, "I don't see what's wrong for that. It would be a shame if we didn't help those charitable organizations."

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