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Editorial: Credible Threat

A few years back, a salesman at a TV station in Chattanooga pitched advertisers on the chance to buy a flattering story about their company in its newscasts. As we recall, the price was $15,000 per.

Once that sales pitch became public knowledge, the station was rightly and roundly pilloried. The station pleaded ignorance, which may well have been true, but was not a defense then and is not one now.

We were reminded of that story last week when Free Press filed a complaint at the FCC about “fake news,” pointing to a paid-for health segment in a newscast and a morning news segment touting toys but with the pitch coming from someone compensated by toy companies.

The pressure to find “creative” ways to get more ad dollars is always there in a competitive business—not something anyone in the print business needs reminding of, by the way. But for TV stations, the triple whammy of the cyclical downer of a tanked economy, the systemic threat wrought by online competition, and the ease with which commercials can be bypassed by DVR-wielding, multitasking media grazers has ratcheted up the pressure.

The FCC under then-Chairman Kevin Martin proposed toughening disclosure rules for paid consideration, but never followed through. The current Democratic majority could be more inclined to follow through or get even tougher if there are sufficient examples of broadcasters failing to include a disclosure, or honoring the teeny-tiny letter of the law with need-a-magnifying-glass, blink-and-you-missed-it disclosures.

It would not likely be atop the commission’s to-do list, which is long and broadband-centric. But the complaint is fair notice that folks with the time and inclination are watching, taking notes and talking to the FCC.

Product placement in entertainment shows is one thing. It can be done poorly or well, and we know writers don’t love having to work sandwichcookie references into their plots, or write a Corvette into a show as a supporting character. But so long as there is disclosure, it is inside the FCC lines.

But that is different from compromising the news product, whose currency is credibility as well as dollar bills. Unfortunately, at least for resisting the temptation to sell out the local news, those newscasts are the biggest money-makers for stations and fill increasingly more airtime. So, whether it is working branded items onto the anchor desk or covering the sale at a local car dealership as though it were a breaking news item, or even (very poorly) masking a promo for a primetime network show like Hawaii Five-0 as a travel tips segment, there are seemingly endless opportunities to be led astray.

Broadcasters have to resist that temptation. Trust takes years to build, but can be lost in an instant.