Earlier this week, 11 local broadcasters were caught airing “news” segments that were actually advertisements praising Amazon’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Experts say the ads—which featured an Amazon PR rep pretending to be a reporter—not only violated the law, but are a shining example of how media consolidation is slowly destroying quality local journalism. The ads were part of an Amazon press release lauding the company for its “innovation” during the COVID-19 crisis. And while some ethical reporters correctly balked at the idea of running marketing fluff as news, some stations ran the prepared segment as hard news without informing viewers they were watching an Amazon infomercial.
Unsurprisingly, the puff piece failed to discuss the eight Amazon warehouse employees who have died from COVID-19, the worker protests over inadequate protective equipment, or the company’s failure to extend a modest $2 per hour hazard bonus beyond May—despite being one of the most valuable organizations in human history. Lawyer and tech policy expert Harold Feld told Motherboard that Section 317 of the Communications Act gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to go after broadcasters for airing PR as “news”—but only if the broadcaster fails to disclose where the promotional material originated. That rule also bans “payola”—such as labels paying radio stations to hype particular artists. The FCC has historically made it clear that without adequate disclosure, such video news releases (VNRs) violate the law. That’s true even if there’s no money exchanged, Feld stated, because the VNRs themselves are an item of value to local broadcasters.
Not only did the local broadcasters not acknowledge that the “news” report came from Amazon, they falsely identified an Amazon PR representative as a reporter.
“This practice became very common in the early 00s as consolidation drove cost-cutting which meant downsizing local newsrooms while still needing to produce the same content,” Feld said. “So local stations began just running whatever companies sent them to provide enough content for their local news show.”
None of the broadcasters involved responded to a Motherboard request for comment. “This type of video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we’ve rolled out in our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren’t able to come tour one of our sites themselves,” Amazon told Motherboard in a statement.
Even when broadcasters are clearly violating the law by failing to identify the source of VNRs, enforcement is inconsistent and the penalties flimsy. In 2007, the FCC fined Comcast $4,000 for airing a sleep remedy segment on one of its channels without noting it was a sponsored ad. The last FCC enforcement action on this front occurred in 2011, when the agency fined two broadcasters just $4,000 for airing marketing fluff as news without adequate disclosure.
“Catching this kind of behavior often falls to watchdogs outside of the agency, and then even when the FCC has the political will to prosecute these offenses it can take a lot of time to bring the enforcement cases to a conclusion,” Matt Wood, General Counsel at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard. His group has been battling this problem since at least 2005.
Since policing every press release and local broadcast would be an onerous task for the FCC, “the onus really does fall on the journalists to sift through and check the source of the material before rushing it onto the air,” Wood added. Victor Pickard, an American media studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard the ads are a direct reflection of the slow but steady death of quality local journalism. In many markets, he noted, quality local broadcasters are being hoovered up by corporate conglomerates more interested in “infotainment” or disinformation than journalism.
“Structural factors that create fertile conditions for such corporate propaganda include the loss of actual journalists, little regulatory oversight, and media ownership concentration, which tends to both intensify commercial pressures and homogenize media content,” Pickard said. As broadcast giants hoover up smaller broadcasters, they’re quick to fire local reporters and shutter local newsrooms. That in turn creates vast “news deserts,” where the only reporting many locals see comes from giant national media conglomerates like Sinclair Broadcasting, whose homogenized misinformation was the subject of a viral Deadspin video in 2018.
While the steady decline of local U.S. journalism is a problem a generation in the making, the Trump FCC has accelerated the issue by eliminating decades old media consolidation rules that used to have broad bipartisan support. “When you have content hungry media outlets governed by absentee owners who are constantly looking to cut costs and make money regardless of whether they're serving local communities, you find an all too perfect storm for such prepackaged misinformation to sail through unimpeded,” Pickard said. One recent study found that the erosion of quality local reporting has resulted in the American public being measurably less informed and more divided—often by design. Another study found that a lack of quality local reporting can measurably sway elections, as more nuanced, non-partisan journalism is supplanted by more partisan, national broadcasts.
“Beyond such gross negligence by the FCC and lack of transparency and public accountability on the part of profit-driven media owners, this is also symptomatic of a sick media ecosystem that's overly commercialized and dominated by run-amok corporations,” Pickard said. “Any society that purports to be a democracy should never allow its media system to become so degraded.”