By Chris Rosica
A free press is one of the greatest gifts our American way of life offers. Protected by the First Amendment, freedom of the press is a truly uncommon privilege that many governments, even democracies, don’t espouse.
Unbeknownst to a well-informed yet unsuspecting public, there is a real threat to our free press that is attacking a major news source – television news. It’s called “pay-for-play,” and it is a growing trend about which the public should be made aware.
Pay-for-play is a common practice in film, including movies, where companies pay to have their products shown; radio, where stations charge for product giveaways; and television reality shows, where companies pay to have their product featured or given away. But when pay-for-play affects television morning news, this is real cause for alarm. We have seen this practice in several major media markets, when we were clearly told by network affiliates that the product or guest for whom we’re seeking television news coverage can be aired “for a fee.”
When this unprincipled practice is used by TV news outlets, it strikes at the very heart of a “free” press. Once a newsroom lets down its guard, who’s to say where it will end? The New York Times recently reported on a Russian company that paid journalists in the Ukraine to publish negative articles about a competitor. While this may be happening in Russia, I am aghast that it could happen on U.S. soil — just as the nation was dismayed over the Armstrong Williams “No Child Left Behind” scandal.
This is unsettling, as there has always been a necessary division between reporting the news and purchasing ad space. As an American and a news consumer, I appreciate these boundaries. In the public relations industry, we suggest story ideas to producers and reporters with the hopes of getting our clients coverage. We do not and cannot bribe, coerce or manipulate the media for this; rather we conduct research and communicate with them in a way that tells the story in a clear and concise fashion to increase the likelihood that a story will run (although there is never a guarantee a segment will see air time). Our goal, always, is to not only advocate for our client, but more importantly, make the segment a service to viewers.
If my sense of professionalism suffers every time I hear a TV news producer offer to run a story “for a price,” I can only imagine what it must be doing to journalists. When one of our public relations professionals recently contacted a television show producer, she was informed that programming would be “pay for play” from now on. “I don’t know how long I can stay in the profession,” she admitted.
There is no denying media is experiencing an elevated level of competition, however, there must be ethical standards that are understood by television viewers and the public at large. This erosion of our rights and the trust we place in the media needs to be addressed by the FCC so viewers are notified before and during these commercial-like, masked (paid programming) segments. If this practice is accepted and veiled as it currently is, it won’t be long before those with legislative or political agendas can secure news coverage by paying for it, just as with the Williams case.
The acceptance of pay-for-play is not only bad for consumers, it misleads them and makes it difficult to discern what’s news and what isn’t. It hurts the democratic idea of a free press and an unbiased media – oar at least a balanced press, which we appreciate and count on. It means only those companies with dollars to spend will get their stories in front of the American public, a public that, unsuspectingly, still believes in freedom of the press.