The Power of The Press
San Franciscans (and others) who may be wondering why they are deluged with
a non-stop torrent of anti-Critical Mass propaganda and why the subject of
sane transportation options is never raised in any kind of substantial way
by our local media may have the mystery solved by this article from EXTRA!,
the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Has a Price
UPDATE: In addition to the article posted here, see also Ron Curran's "Buying the News" which appeared in the October 8 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian for details on one mechanism by which Bay Areas news is manipulated.
"...in more than 20 stories in the Commuter Chronicles
series, we could find only one real conclusion: Traffic's bad.
We all hate it. But it's really nobody's fault -- and there's not a
whole hell of a lot you can do about it...
Note: The Chronicle, the Northern California's largest circulation newspaper, owns KRON, one of four of the city's television news outlets.
Another web site about the TV news
By Laurence Soley
Published by: Extra!, July/August 1997
Sixty years ago, reporter and press critic George Seldes wrote in
Freedom of the Press that advertisers, not government, are the principal
news censors in the United States. Not only do advertisers pressure
newspapers to kill or alter stories, he concluded, but newspapers censor
stories out of deference "toward the sources of their money" without being told.
Sixty years later, advertisers are still muscling newspapers. A
survey of 55 members of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers
at the society's 1992 conference revealed that advertiser pressure was
common. Eighty percent reported that the pressure was a growing problem,
and 45 percent knew of instances where news coverage was compromised by
advertisers. "Business journalists have always struggled against advertiser
pressures, but our members are telling us it's getting worse," said Sandra
Deurr, the business editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and former
A survey of local news editors described in Advertising Age
(1/11/93) found that automobile dealers were the most frequent sources of
pressure. "They want all stories involving auto sales to have a rosy
outlook," one editor observed, "and they whine about negative economic
stories, even if they're on a national level from AP."
Advertisers appear to be muscling broadcasters as well. In Los
Angeles, veteran KCBS-TV consumer reporter David Horowitz was let go in 1996
after automobile advertisers repeatedly complained to management about his
stories on car safety. According to Horowitz management had first tried to
stop his investigations with comments such as, "I'm concerned about the
story not because it's right or wrong, but because it may cost us
advertising." According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder
(2/12/96), Chicago's WLS-TV killed a story on fire hazards in Ford vehicles
because it "didn't want to risk offending auto dealers who advertise heavily
on the station."
Pressures Are Common
To determine whether these actions are typical, I sent a
questionnaire about advertiser pressures to 241 members of Investigative
Reporters and Editors employed at commercial television stations. The
questionnaires asked reporters about advertiser muscling of their news
operations and their stations' responses to these pressures. Only one IRE
member at each station was sent a questionnaire, thereby eliminating
duplicated answers. Just under 50 percent of the questionnaires sent out
were completed and returned.
Nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported that advertisers
had "tried to influence the content" of news at their stations. The
majority of respondents also reported that advertisers had attempted to kill
Moreover, the responses show that advertisers tried to use monetary
leverage as part of their pressure. More than two-thirds reported that
advertisers threatened to withdraw their advertising because of the content
of news stories. Forty-four percent of the respondents reported that
advertisers had "actually withdrawn advertising because of the content of a
The responses of reporters at large and small market stations did
not differ. For example, 75 percent of respondents at large market stations
reported that advertisers had "tried to influence the content" of news
stories, compared to 74 percent of respondents at small market stations. As
for whether advertisers had actually "withdrawn advertising because of the
content of a news report," 44 percent of reporters at stations in both large
and small markets responded affirmatively.
Comments made on the questionnaires suggest that automobile dealers
are a major source of censorial pressure. One respondent wrote, "it would
be interesting for you to take a look at the role car dealers play in
governing what's said about them by local television. They are practically
Citing another censorious industry, one reporter noted that "we are
currently battling with the local restaurant association and the members who
advertise on our station whether we should air the city's weekly restaurant
inspection ratings." The reporter added, "In this instance, my bosses are
backing me." Grocery stores and "lawyers who advertise on television" were
also mentioned as sources of pressure.
Of course, the more important question is not whether advertisers
have directly pressured television stations, but whether the stations have
yielded to the pressure. Questioned whether advertisers "succeeded in
influencing a news report at your station," nearly as many said their
stations had capitulated (40 percent) as had withstood the pressure (43
Two questions addressed the issue of self-censorship. Asked whether
there had been "pressure from within your stations to not produce news
stories that advertisers might find objectionable," 59 percent of
respondents said there had been. One respondent wrote, "I have experienced
direct pressure from my general manager (with no defense from my news
director) to not only 'tread lightly' on advertisers, but also to be careful
about 'our corporate neighbors in the community.' Disgusting!"
A reporter in California, who claimed to have been sacked for
offending advertisers, sent a copy of a memo he received from his news
director, reading, "If you're involved in a story which you know might
reflect badly on an advertiser, please let me know, so I can give sales a
Several respondents provided in-depth descriptions of the internal
pressures at their stations. One wrote, "I've found that many general
managers at TV stations (including my own) are former TV sales people and
therefore know the advertisers very well. It is common for advertisers to
call a station and express their 'concerns' about a story. While I have
never been asked to lie or mislead viewers, I have been asked to soften a
story an advertiser might find objectionable."
Another commented that "I'm not sure if 'pressure' is the right
word. It's probably better described as 'story steering.' For example, if
a story is suggested on car dealers, something might be said like, 'there's
a lot better things for us to look into, don't you think?'" Similarly, one
reporter wrote that direct pressure wasn't applied at the station, but there
was "just a general understanding to avoid a specific area."
Eager to Please
As for whether there had "been pressure from within your station to
produce news stories to please advertisers," 56 percent of respondents
reported that there was. Several reporters wrote comments about this
pressure. The most frequent comment suggested that "sales people come in
and request stories be done on their clients" or that sales people set up
"interviews and tell us about them after they're promised." Another wrote
there was pressure "to interview advertisers on positive stories and not on
negative stories with the guidance of management."
Other reporters painted a less benevolent picture of the pressure to
produce stories to please advertisers. One wrote that the "pressure to
produce stories to please advertisers is commonplace and intense. An
example--a reporter is doing an annual 'Valentines Day Gifts' feature.
Management will strongly suggest visiting a florist that advertises with the
station. The reporter also described an incident where the news director
told a business reporter to do a story on an advertiser saying, 'We have to
do a story on this. I know it isn't news, but this is a huge account.' The
reporter knew she had no choice and did the story...These types of incidents
happen on a weekly, if not daily, basis to varying degrees."
Another reporter provided a directive that had been handed down by
the news director: "From time to time, we do stories where we need an expert
of sorts...no one company or person in particular, just someone who knows
about a certain subject. Sales has asked me to check with them in those
situations, feeling that...we might as well call on one who does business
with the station. So, whenever it's one of those situations (like we need a
realtor, we need a bail bondsman, we need a coffee shop owner), please give
sales a call and see if they have someone who's available and media friendly."
As for the sources of internal pressure, 35 reporters specifically
mentioned the sales manager or sales department as being the source of
pressure, 23 mentioned the general manager or "management," and nine
mentioned the news director.
A Little Help From Their Friends
While other groups try to influence or suppress coverage,
advertisers wield a unique economic club over television stations by
withdrawing or threatening to withdraw advertising. However, advertisers do
not exert the pressure by themselves. As one respondent wrote:
"The pressure comes from out
side the station and within the
station and often the two sides
are working together to either
kill stories or alter them. I know
of an instance where a sales
executive actually met with the
focus of an investigative report
over lunch and told him what
the story would be about. How
did the sales executive know
the content of an investigative
report before it aired? A news
executive told him."
Not all news executives have sold out, of course. But with
pressures for greater profits, the incentive to produce news stories that
will either please or not offend advertisers is great. The problem was
summarized by an investigative reporter, who wrote:
"The pressure from outside
influences doesn't bother me;
it's always been there and I
suspect it always will be.
However, there seems to be a
frightening trend for the
powers that be at corporate
[headquarters] to give in to
that pressure and pretend
everything will go on as
before--business as usual.
"Unfortunately, in many
cases, that's all it is,
Business. A gold-card advertiser
can keep the dirty secrets
secret and in some cases keep
their victims in the dark.
Those victims are our viewers
who expect more and many times
rely too much on the so-called
power of the press.
What they don't know is--
power has a price, and it's for
Author: Lawrence Soley is the Colnik Professor of Communications at Marquette
University in Milwaukee.
Another web site about the TV news
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