Fear & Favor: News, Journalism, and Power
Talk about the belly of the beast. In April of 2007, NBC's Matt Lauer opened a news report from inside an airplane engine manufactured by General Electric, NBC's corporate parent. "Full disclosure," the Today show host told viewers, on site at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, "it's actually made by our parent company, General Electric. One hundred fifteen thousand pounds of thrust."
Lauer's opener may qualify as disclosure, but viewers might've mistaken it for a plug when it was followed by his assurances that "these planes will make flying more comfortable," and that "you don't have to be nervous on a plane like this, because they have put these things through rigorous and extensive testing." By the time Lauer thanked Boeing employees "who love what they do and make a great product," and signed off with "a saying around here...'If it ain't Boeing, we ain't going,'" viewers may have felt no amount of disclosure could have been sufficient.
Good journalism requires that reporters rigorously avoid attempts to influence coverage one way or another, from advertisers, government officials, PR agencies and even the boss's bosses, as in Lauer's case. But each year the media watchers at FAIR are able to collect example after vivid example of such influence for the annual report "Fear & Favor: How Power Shapes the News."
The report, whose title comes from New York Times owner Adolph Ochs' 1896 pledge "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor," is far from comprehensive, and is intended only to remind audiences to maintain a critical attitude while reading and watching the news, not only about what might be left out of the story but about what's in it -- and why.
Also from the latest Fear & Favor (just out from FAIR):
- A cover story in Automotive News described how General Motors gave radio talkshow hosts free use of new cars and trucks in addition to buying ads during their shows. No reason not to draw straight line from that treatment to, for example, Rush Limbaugh's effusion to listeners: "Believe in General Motors, folks. They're a classic American company doing it all."
A GM rep told the paper the company wooed hosts (of various ideological stripes, including liberals Ed Schulz and Whoopi Goldberg as well as Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity) because "radio personalities have a unique relationship with their listeners ....The audience knows they are being genuine."
- What do you get if you buy a lot of ads on financial news network CNBC? If you're Citigroup, it appears you get access to network headliner Maria Bartiromo.
Details were revealed of a close relationship between Bartiromo and top Citigroup officer Todd Thompson, who often brought the host to company functions and to meet with clients, in one case flying her to private Citigroup luncheons in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Most folks saw the conflict; Citigroup is not just a CNBC advertiser, but the subject of reporting on any business network. CNBC nonetheless defended their star anchor, chalking the engagements up to "source development."
- U.S. journalists routinely take their cues from official pronouncements, making government influence on news so pervasive it can be hard to track. Some examples are clear though, as when New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg hit on a sure way to get the kind of coverage he wanted for his annual State of the City speech: Bloomberg's office floated reporters copies of the speech a day early, on the condition that they not interview potential critics about the mayor's proposals.
Only one local, the New York Sun, even filled readers in on the backstage deal, even as they played along; the paper's critic-free story noted that Bloomberg's remarks were "released to reporters on the condition that nobody would be called to comment on them until today." No such disclosure from the New York Times, New York Post, Daily News or Newsday.
News audiences have a responsibility to read and watch critically, to "consider the source" and to seek a variety of perspectives. But we should also have a right to expect that the news we get is produced in a climate where journalistic priorities are paramount, not favor-trading or burnishing the company bottom line.
If Fear & Favor is any guide, corporate media seem less and less interested each year in honoring that right.
Janine Jackson is Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's program director and a frequent contributor to FAIR's magazine, Extra!. She co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). And she co-hosts and produces FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin--a weekly program of media criticism airing on more than 150 stations around the country.