According to numerous press articles, including this one in Multichannel News, the FCC has begun an investigation into several commentators on TV news programs to see if they were receiving payments or other consideration for presenting a particular viewpoint on military issues on which they were interviewed. According to press reports, the FCC has sent letters requesting information about the arrangements to both television networks and the commentators themselves. This investigation would appear to be a continuation of the FCC’s concern about undisclosed sponsors of programming attempting to convince the public of a particular position on any controversial issue of public importance.
This investigation seems to be very similar to a case about which we wrote last year, where the FCC issued fines to a station group that aired programming that included commentator Armstrong Williams, who had been receiving consideration to speak in support of the No Child Left Behind program. The FCC has also been looking at similar issues in its Sponsorship Identification and Embedded Advertising Proceeding, about which we wrote here. In both of these proceedings, the FCC has warned broadcasters that they need to assess whether anyone who is supplying programming material to the station is receiving consideration for the views expressed on that programming, particularly where that programming involves something that could be considered a controversial issue of public importance. Thus, stations should be asking networks, program syndicators, and others appearing on a program whether they are receiving any consideration for the views that they are about to express – particularly where that is not clear from the context of the program. While the FCC has not explicitly so stated, it would seem like an interview of an author about his new book or an actor about his new movie would clearly imply that the author or actor received consideration. But where someone is expressing an opinion on some matter where it is unclear that there is any commercial or financial interest, and such an interest does indeed exist, the station should be aware of that interest and disclose that connection on-air. See our discussion here for another case where the FCC imposed fines on a cable system for not disclosing such interests. One more thing to worry about!