In a 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, veteran CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow told a roomful of TV executives, “We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent.” The anchorman, who used his position to take on powerful politicians such as former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and issues such as segregation, cautioned that the new medium was being used to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate” the public.
Almost 60 years later, Murrow’s warning has gone unheeded by the corporate broadcast media. On June 8, CNN unveiled “Courageous,” a new production unit and an in-house studio that would be paid by advertisers to produce and broadcast news-like “branded content.”
“This isn’t about confusing editorial with advertising,” CNN executive Dan Riess told the Wall Street Journal. But a corporation going beyond advertising on a channel and funding the network to produce PR segments made to look like news is exactly the kind of confusion Riess is referring to.
More than ever before, the American public needs reliable, impartial news outlets that report on the stories of the day honestly and objectively. And while some savvy news consumers may turn to independent, online sources for information that is free from corporate influence, the majority of Americans who work 8 to 10-hour days don’t have the time or energy to seek out these sources. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 listed television as their primary source of news. A similar survey last year from the American Press Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research on the future of journalism, reported that 95 percent of adults over the age of 60 consume TV news. When these viewers turn on their television, they should not be served with a rosy, one-sided portrayal of a multinational corporation that may have been accused of worker or environmental abuses that often go unreported. (As of this writing, inquiries to CNN regarding which corporations have paid for segments on “Courageous” have not been returned.)
During Murrow’s era, broadcasters were granted licenses with the understanding that they would operate in the public interest. For example, a 1960 report by the Federal Communications Commission, which governs the broadcast media, identified 14 program areas that licensed broadcasters should follow in order to ensure diversity programming and serve the public interest. Of the 14 targets, educational programs, public affairs, editorials from licensees, political broadcasts and news programs were highlighted as key to advancing the public interest. But in the decades since, as the news became more commoditized, broadcasters have largely discarded public service in favor of higher profits and stock prices to suit investors. The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine — a policy the Federal Communications Commission adopted in 1949 that instructed news outlets to operate in the interest of impartially informing the public — signified the end of any governmental mandate for broadcasters to work in the public interest.
Last year, Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, laid off nearly 1,475 media professionals, or 10 percent of its workforce. Turner CEO, John Martin, said the shakeup was part of an initiative called “Turner 2020,” which aims to boost corporate profits by cutting costs. A few weeks later, the Dish Network temporarily dropped Turner’s channels after the two sides failed to agree on a contract. Executives at Turner’s parent company, Time Warner, promised its Wall Street investors that the network would achieve growth by instituting “double-digit” increases on service providers such as Dish Network. In this context, CNN’s newest venture is simply the latest move by a media conglomerate committed to appeasing shareholders who will never be satisfied, regardless of the stock price levels.
To be clear, the branded content advertising model has become a staple as news outlets struggle to find ways to make up for a decline in ad revenue. However, on digital platforms, branded content is clearly identified as such, and separated from other contents on the site. “Courageous” is the first major foray by a television network into native advertising. But the CNN model has the potential to disguise branded content as honest reporting to deceive the public.
Once a news outlet as recognizable as CNN starts airing branded content, it has the potential to create a huge conflict of interest in editorial decisions. If news outlets have become so starved for ad revenue that they’re turning to branded content, then will those news outlets’ editorial departments ever truly be able to criticize their advertisers if and when they do wrong? And if station executives and Wall Street investors are insisting on branded content as the centerpiece of a news outlet’s business model, can that news outlet ever truly criticize big business?
The news media is the public’s watchdog against abuse by both governmental and corporate entities. But it’s increasingly become a pay-for-play manipulation platform, allowing the highest bidder to dictate the news agenda. “This instrument can teach. It can illuminate, and yes, it can even inspire,” said Murrow, concluding his now famous speech. “But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
Murrow’s cautionary tale has come full circle. The public should take note of the media's growing susceptibility to corporate influence and demand honest and impartial reporting, as well as open disclosures about corporations’ sway over editorial decisions from news outlets such as CNN.