- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Perhaps no one was more alarmed than Jonathan S. Adelstein when the Wall Street Journal reported in April that some of the consumer specialists who tout products on TV news shows routinely receive undisclosed payments from manufacturers.

Mr. Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, has long been critical of runaway commercialization in the media.

After the Journal published its report, he said he approached some of the programs that have featured specialists paid by outside sources — a list that includes NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” — and offered to go on the air to discuss hidden advertising in the news.

No one took him up on his offer.

“I told them if they don’t want to put me on, I’d be happy to put someone else on. There wasn’t a lot of interest,” Mr. Adelstein said in an interview. “I was disappointed because I thought it was an opportunity for them to come clean.”

Finding a forum to criticize corporate-owned press is tricky these days, but Mr. Adelstein isn’t giving up.

Last month, he gave a speech before a journalism think tank and condemned the “bottomless pit” of commercialism in the press.

“We have a right to know that people who present themselves to be independent, unbiased experts and reporters are not shills to promote a corporate — or governmental — agenda,” Mr. Adelstein said, according to a transcript.

Running a brief mention of endorsements during a program’s closing credits isn’t enough, he added, saying disclosure should be “meaningful.”

His remarks didn’t spark much press coverage, but to those paying attention, they signaled that at least one person in Washington is thinking seriously about the integrity of the news.

FCC rules require broadcasters to clearly identify when they air material for which they have received payment and to ensure that contributors aren’t receiving outside compensation for the products they review on the air.

Broadcasters who fail to comply with the rules face potential fines and license revocation.

“There are criminal sanctions here. This is pretty serious business,” Mr. Adelstein said during the interview.

Commercialism is rampant in the media. Product placement is especially common on television, particularly on “The Apprentice,” “Survivor” and other reality shows that integrate brand names into their contests.

In April, the Wall Street Journal and, later, The Washington Post showed how commercialism is seeping into TV news.

For example, Corey Greenberg, the technology editor for NBC’s “Today,” has charged companies such as Apple Computer Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. $15,000 apiece to tout their products on other news shows, the Journal reported.

Mr. Greenberg defended the compensation, saying he wouldn’t do paid work for a product he didn’t believe in. Representatives for “Today” and other news shows said they since have updated their policies to require contributors to disclose outside business deals.

Programs that have featured paid specialists should do something on air to inform viewers who missed the press reports about the outside payments, Mr. Adelstein said.

“They owe an explanation to their viewers. This demands equal time,” he said.

Hidden advertising will flourish in broadcast journalism because the big companies that own TV networks and stations are focused on boosting their bottom lines, said Mr. Adelstein, who strongly opposes relaxing the rules that prevent media conglomerates from growing bigger.

“Marketers are taking advantage of the credibility news organizations have, and in the process, they are eroding that very credibility,” he said.

PBS gets ombudsman

PBS will hire an ombudsman who will serve as an in-house representative for viewers, the public broadcaster announced yesterday.

The PBS board of directors also accepted the recommendations of a panel that studied the broadcaster’s editorial standards and found they were “well-reasoned and clear” and required minimal updating.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to [email protected].

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