Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bing, Bang, Boom

It's despicable, but hardly surprising, that Nightly News offers glowingly positive "news stories" about products that are regularly advertised on NBC. In fact, these great big "thank yous" to advertisers occur fairly frequently. Recently, viewers have seen stories on Chrysler, United Airlines, Cheerios, Starbucks, McDonald's and many other products that regularly advertise on NBC. Other stories praise entire industries (automotive, airline, pharmaceutical) that are heavy advertisers. But last Sunday may have been the most egregious example yet of NBC's ethical shortcomings. That day, we were treated to a "news report" about a product made by one of NBC's partners. At first, the report seemed like an innocuous story about on-line search engines. Correspondent Contessa Brewer told us that there are some niche search engines (like ChaCha) trying to chip away at Google, the industry leader with around $20 billion in annual revenue. But halfway through the story, Brewer announces, "Now bring on Bing!" We then see part of a Bing commercial--full screen--as Brewer tells us that, "Bing has already grabbed 8% of all searches and it's growing." This is followed by an interview with Bing's general manager who enthusiastically says that everyone at Bing is focused on creating a great experience and differentiating themselves from Google. Brewer then tells us exactly why Bing is better than Google. "Side by side there's a marked difference," she says. "Type 'New York to Paris' and Bing morphs into an airline booking website. Lists of prices and flights you can buy with a click. Google just displays a list of websites." Brewer ends her report with, "Will there be a clear winner? Probably not in the foreseeable future. That's a good thing because the epic fight between the giants promises to speed up innovation by the little guys." As she says this, the Bing and Google logos appear on screen, as if Bing is Google's main competition. Wow. Brewer sure seems sold on Bing. I wonder why. Actually, the answer is obvious. In her report, Brewer tells us that Bing is a Microsoft product. And Microsoft is NBC's partner in MSNBC and the MSNBC.com website (and perhaps in other ventures as well). So Brewer is blatantly promoting a product in which NBC has a financial interest. After all, the more profit Microsoft earns from Bing, the more money they can invest in MSNBC. This is not only shameless, it is unethical. And even worse--neither Brewer nor Lester Holt bothered to offer the viewers a disclosure about the relationship between Microsoft and NBC.

This type of self-motivated product promotion occurs frequently on Nightly News, but in truth there is no way for viewers to know just how frequently. It's relatively easy to spot a "news story" promoting a product that is regularly advertised on NBC. But how are viewers supposed to know when Nightly News promotes products that are not readily identifiable as belonging to NBC's advertisers or partners? Robert Bazell often reports on medical innovations, such as new drugs or medical equipment. How are we supposed to know if General Electric (NBC's parent company) has a financial or ownership stake in any of these products? We don't, and Bazell or Brian Williams are certainly not about to inform us. The Nightly News producers and reporters (and especially Brian Williams) are acting unethically. It is their responsibility to avoid fawning reports about the products of NBC's advertisers and partners. But if they do present such a report, they should be required to make a forthright disclosure to the viewers about NBC's relationship to the story's subject. Their failure to do so indicates a clear intent to deceive the Nightly News audience. And for that, they owe us an apology.

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