Saturday, April 4, 2009

NBC's Golden Geese

These are dire economic times for most Americans. But not at Nightly News. When ad rates drop or advertisers purchase fewer ads, Nightly News simply turns to their golden goose. Geese, actually. I'm speaking, of course, about the big pharmaceutical companies. Whenever Nightly News needs to increase their cash flow, they call their buddies at Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. During the month of March, 2008, Nightly News had three sponsored segments by Glaxo ("What Works" or "Making A Difference") and two broadcasts that were entirely sponsored (one by Pfizer and one by Fidelity Investments). During March 2009, however, Nightly News featured 11 sponsored segments (ten by Glaxo and one by Pfizer) in addition to one broadcast that was entirely sponsored by Fidelity. It's likely that these twelve sponsorships brought more than $1 million to Nightly News's coffers. (Keep in mind that this amount is for sponsored segments only--it is in addition to the millions and millions of dollars that Nightly News earns for the sale of commercials.) It would be nice if we could all turn to Glaxo and Pfizer when we needed a little extra cash.

But NBC's acceptance of pharmaceutical sponsorship money raises an important ethical issue. What else does this sponsorship money buy? The answer is favorable news coverage. Nightly News often uses news stories to promote their advertisers' products. On July 18, 2007, Nightly News reported a "news story" about Restless Leg Syndrome. Although many doctors insist that RLS is not a real medical syndrome, Nightly News used this story to legitimize RLS solely for the purpose of promoting Requip, a medication used to treat RLS. Requip (made by GlaxoSmithKline) is a frequent advertiser on Nightly News. And it's not only the pharmaceutical companies who get beneficial treatment from NBC. On Nov. 13, 2007, Brian Williams anchored Nightly News from a Chrysler plant in Detroit. His comments about Chrysler were completely without objectivity. He praised Chrysler products, and conducted an "intereview" with the Jim Press (Chrysler's #2 executive) that can only be described as fawning and sycophantic. Less than three months later, Chrysler paid for the sponsorship of an entire Nightly News broadcast. It would be naive to believe that there is no relation between Chrysler's sponsorship and Brian's coverage. Nightly News often uses advertisers' products and logos in their news stories--McDonald's, M & M/Mars, United Airlines, Coke, Nike. Clearly, NBC includes these products in news stories as a way of thanking their sponsors. There is no line between news and advertising. If Nightly News uses their news stories to promote their sponsors'products, how can we trust what we see on their broadcast? The answer is: We can't. Viewers never know if they are watching a legitimate news story or a paid product placement. In the process of selling sponsorship after sponsorship, NBC News has sold their credibility.

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