Friday, April 15, 2005

Blogger Ethics

Time to convene another panel and get the FEC on our asses:

Here's another example. A spokesperson for CNN recently adopted a technique more fitting for some of the dodgy companies it covers -- dissembling in the hope that unwelcome questions would melt away.

This winter, there was a flood of stories about the widespread use of "video news releases" -- sent out by government agencies -- that were designed to mimic actual news stories. They were broadcast on many local TV news programs.

When asked about the practice, the nation's media critic in chief – that would be one George W. Bush – defended it, saying that the stations ran the pieces voluntarily. But local news directors said they thought they were real. Why? Because they came from a division of CNN.

More than 800 American stations pay that division -- which is called CNN Newsource -- to send them stories from CNN and its affiliates. But that's not all CNN Newsource does. Many public relations firms also pay it to distribute "video news releases" from their clients -- including the U.S. government. (Several competitors have similar deals.)

So CNN Newsource had more than one kind of client here. When preparing a story on the subject last month for NPR, I asked CNN, How big a side business is this? A CNN spokesman said there was no way to know how many video news releases were distributed by CNN in the typical week or month or year. It was impossible to tell, he said.

The "video news releases" weren't a major source of revenue for CNN, he explained, in genial tones meant to inspire confidence. They only generated modest fees. Naturally, the size of those fees couldn't be divulged. He also said CNN put tough safeguards in place when the issue first surfaced last year. Each public relations firm now had to sign a contract for every "video news release" saying each spot would make clear who paid for it.

Here's a pretty precise paraphrase of the conversation that ensued:

NPR: So, these guys at the PR firms actually have to sign a contract for every video news release you distribute through CNN Newsource?

CNN Guy: Yes.

NPR: And they pay you some nominal fee for each. It's not done through petty cash -- you guys send them bills, right?

CNN Guy: Sure.

NPR: So why can't you march down to accounting or your legal department and have someone pull those bills and contracts? Just count how many invoices and contracts there are. Wouldn't that instantly tell you precisely how many video news releases CNN Newsource had distributed?

CNN Guy:

NPR: Hello? Hello? You there?

There was a looooooong pause. I invited him – then and several times subsequently – to reconcile his responses. No further explanation followed.