Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fake News

For years, Channel 3 has run a 'Health Smart' segment in the midst of its evening news programs that somehow always -- or at best almost always -- ends up promoting Baptist Hospital of Pensacola or its affiliate physicians. Never, to our knowledge, has this "news" feature ever mentioned any of the other major city hospitals or non-Baptist affiliated doctors.
Our email inbox brings a message from an organization that's new to us called, with admirable simplicity, Free Press.

Free Press describes itself as a "a national nonpartisan organization" that strives "to open up the media system to allow more diversity of opinion to be expressed, to present a broader perspective, and to increase the caliber of information available to everyday people." At a glance, it also seems to be rather closely allied with a more established media advocacy group we're familiar with, the Center for Media and Democracy.

Who cares? Lord knows we need more them! Really.

Since 1987 when Ronald Reagan scratched out the word "public" in "public interest" in the Federal Communications Commission's statutory mandate, the state of television broadcasting in America has fallen to levels of embarrassment previously considered impossible for anything produced by upright-walking mammals.

The thing that caught our eye in Free Press's message was an "action alert" headlined "Fake News Invades Florida." Singled out for criticism was "corporate propaganda" aired in the guise of real news.

Free Press is onto something. Dressing up commercials as news is definitely unethical journalism. If it isn't illegal, too, it sure ought to be.

The thing that troubles us is that a Free Press map of Florida identifies only four TV stations that indulge in the practice. We're getting that itchy feeling that there may be a great many more.

Here in Pensacola, for instance, we have the execrable WEAR-TV (channel 3), owned by the even more detestable Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Channel 3 in Pensacola may well qualify as the worst station in television history. Well, okay. Second-worst, after the old WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, which lost its license because of overt racism back in the '70s when it was owned by Lamar Broadcasting and the notorious Hunt Brothers.

For years, Channel 3 has run a 'Health Smart' segment in the midst of its evening news programs that somehow always -- or at best almost always -- ends up promoting Baptist Hospital of Pensacola or its affiliate physicians. Never, to our knowledge, has this "news" feature ever mentioned any of the other major city hospitals or non-Baptist affiliated doctors.

But don't take our word for it. We pretty much gave up watching Channel 3 for anything except yuks about the time Sinclair preempted Ted Koppel's tribute to the fallen in Iraq.

It's barely possible the "Health Smart" segment is just Sinclair's way of saying "We don't waste any of our money on producing actual news for our newscasts. We let doctors do it." But to our eye, the "Health Smart" segment has always looked, sounded, and smelled so much like an infomercial that we can't help wondering if, how much, and in what form Baptist pays WEAR-TV to air it.

Given that the program looks and acts so much like a corporate commercial dressed up as a news feature, we'd like to know four things:

1. Why does the "Health Smart" segment not feature other Pensacola hospitals in equal measure?

2. Is the substantial time WEAR-TV devotes to this segment in the middle of its newscasts logged as "advertising" time or "content" time in the station's reports to the Federal Communications Commission?

3. What, if any, money or goods or services is exchanged between WEAR-TV and Baptist Hospital in connection with the segment?

4. What does Sinclair have to say about Channel 3's alleged "30 minute" evening news broadcasts in its license renewal applications?

We have no idea what the answers might be. As we said, we can't abide watching the station anymore. And the few times we have been moved to call WEAR-TV (1-850-456-3333 or Toll Free 866-856-9327) to complain, someone at the station tells us the "reporter" for its health segment has left work for the day.

If Pensacola still has a newspaper with any investigative reporters, they might want to look into the matter. While it's true the "fairness doctrine" is no more, it's still the case that lying to the FCC is grounds for discipline, ranging from a stiff fine to revocation of the broadcast license.

The punishment probably isn't as bad as the fine for showing one nanosecond of exposed breast, but the threat might encourage Channel 3 to restore a couple of minutes to its Incredible Shrinking 30-Minute News Broadcast, now hovering somewhere south of 14 minutes every half hour.

Go ahead. Check it out. As for us, if we have to watch any news program, it will be News Hour with Jim Lehrer. It's still commercial-free, if you don't count the first several minutes of "sponsor" acknowledgements that also look a lot like commercials.

1 comment:

Ricardo X said...

Not to mention the Sinclair-sanctioned, right-wing political ramblings on "The Point" segment of WEAR's "newscast."