FTC Petition: Response of RMMW to the FTC's 7/18/01 Letter 



Response of RMMW to the FTC's 7/18/01 Letter

Press Release, 8/14/01

The FTC's Letter of Response to the Petition, 7/18/01

Petition to FTC 5/8/01

Press Release 5/8/01
August 14, 2001

Federal Trade Commission
Division of Advertising Practices
C. Lee Peeler, Associate Director
Washington, DC 20580

Dear Mr. Peeler:

Thank you for your thoughtful and prompt response to our petition.

We were heartened to read that you understand our concern that citizens be well-informed on issues of civic importance. However, we respectfully disagree with your decision dismissing our request to restrict local TV stations in Denver from advertising their nightly "news" shows as news.

In our petition to you, we suggested that you require the local TV stations to advertise their "news" programming as "info-tainment," "Mayhem, Fluff, Weather and Sports," or some other phrase that accurately describes what it really is.

We stated that it is not appropriate for the Denver stations to lure news consumers to their info-tainment shows by calling them "news" in advertisements.

It is clear that the shows do not broadcast news. Exhaustive content analyses of the local "news" shows reveal that the programs are substantially non-news comprised of four topics: weather, sports, mayhem (crime and disaster), and celebrity fluff. Local TV shows should definitely cover violent topics and other issues that people don't want to see—as well as amusing stories—but to repeat the same very narrow band of four topics day after day is not news. It is entertainment.

But we are not asking that you accept our definition of professional journalism. Instead, consider the journalistic standards promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and other professional organizations. According to the SPJ, news should contain diverse opinions and a balance of stories, so that people can be informed in a democracy. (See the SPJ’s website at www.spj.com.)

Despite its divergence from the accepted standards of professional journalists, the narrow and sensational content of local TV news might not be so deplorable if it were not for this fact: Local TV news stations are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast in the public interest. As public trustees, they have a heightened standard to meet their own professional journalistic standards of news.

As you know, Rocky Mountain Media Watch is not advocating that the federal government censor the broadcasts. In fact, we argue that the stations could broadcast all mayhem and fluff all the time around the clock, but they should not call it news. Just as the FTC sets advertising standards for other industries, it can also do so for these "news" broadcasting stations.

You base your decision to reject our petition on two grounds: First, you state that we provide no evidence that reasonable consumers expect "issue-oriented news," and consequently they are not misled by the stations’ "news" ads. The best evidence points to the fact that consumers do expect to find issue-oriented news on the broadcasts. In a May 2000 poll conducted for the reputable Pew Center for the People and the Press, 67 percent of news consumers said that they want "news that gives them general information about important events," rather than "news that's mostly about [their] interests." There is ample anecdotal evidence as well. The Denver stations’ excessive coverage of Klondike and Snow, two polar bears born at the Denver Zoo several summers ago, precipitated countless articles about the public’s dissatisfaction with the "news" coverage.

In your response you also argue that even if consumers expected to find issue-oriented news on the broadcasts, they would not be harmed by its absence. You assert that they could simply find other sources of news or in-depth information.

We do not share in this opinion. At 10 p.m., as people settle down for the evening at the end of their busy day, there is realistically only one news source: the televised evening news. Watching the evening news is an American institution. According to the same Pew poll cited above, 80 percent of the public "regularly" or "sometimes" watches local TV news each day. It is unrealistic to expect consumers to abdicate the convenience, comfort, and tradition of televised nightly news for additional sources of information, especially when the stations receive licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate "in the public interest."

We also believe that news consumers turn to local TV "news," in part, based on the public interest aura that the stations cultivate. No other news source with such wide popularity receives a federal license to operate in the public interest. These licenses require periodic renewal, engender public trust, and legitimize the stations as sources of news.

The stations capitalize on their FCC licenses to attract news consumers. They periodically inform news consumers that they receive federal licenses to operate in the public interest. They promote their "news" reporters as if they were public servants, operating in the public-oriented spirit of their licenses.

As a result, when the stations broadcast non-news in place of news, consumers—who believe the stations are operating in the public interest and who want news about "important events"—come to believe that non-news on the stations’ programs is, in fact, news.

If the government is willing to regulate the stations’ licensing process and cloak them with the authority of public trustees, it is appropriate—indeed necessary—for the government to ensure that the stations are not abusing this privilege by deceiving consumers in order to maximize profits.

We appreciate your taking the time to reconsider your position on our petition.


Shannon Service, Executive Director
Jason Salzman, Board Chair
1836 Blake Street #100 A
Denver, CO 80202

David Akerson
Attorney for RMMW