Last Tuesday's Nightly News story about the link between food dyes and hyperactivity did not show, or even mention, a single brand name product. Instead, Tom Costello told us these dyes are, "Found in everything from drinks to candies, baked goods, chips, even pickles and mac and cheese." As he said this, we are shown video of these products--without identifying a single product by name. This is hardly surprising. All of these products advertise regularly on Nightly News and the producers are deathly afraid of offending their sponsors. The chips looked suspiciously like Doritos (from Frito-Lay), and the pickles and macaroni and cheese were likely from Heinz and Kraft, two of the largest manufacturers of those respective products. Simply put, Brian Williams, Tom Costello and their producers do not run negative reports about their sponsors' products. They do however, run favorable reports about these products. On 2/4/10, Brian spent 30 seconds telling us about the wonderful new packaging for Heinz Ketchup. On 3/17/10, Brian told us the great news that Kraft will be reducing the sodium in their products by 10%. And on 12/28/10, Brian could barely contain his excitement as he told us that Frito-Lay would be removing chemical additives from many of their products (which Brian proceeded to mention by name). And although many cereals use food dyes, Costello did not show or mention a single brand name cereal in his report. That's because General Mills cereals (such as Cheerios) are frequent Nightly News advertisers and sponsors (in fact, Cheerios sponsored Nightly News broadcasts twice in the previous week). Nightly News refuses to show General Mills cereals in a negative light. But they're happy to use their news stories to plug Cheerios. On 9/24/10, Kristen Welker did a "news report" about the shopping habits of American consumers that was little more than a thinly-veiled product placement for Cheerios. So it is hardly surprising that in Tuesday's food dye story, Nightly News did not identify the pickles, chips, macaroni and cheese or any of their sponsors' products by name. It was actually quite funny to see the producers presenting all of the products in this story in generic or unlabeled form. Their desperation to protect their sponsors was laughably obvious.
Contrast this Nightly News report on food dyes with Wednesday's CBS Evening News report on the same subject. The CBS report showed brand-name products such as Fritos and Ruffles (both from Frito-Lay), M & Ms, Mott's Applesauce, Gatorade, Eggos, Kraft salad dressings, Hellmann's Mayonnaise, Popsicles, Jello and a variety of cereals such as Frosted Flakes, Cap'n Crunch and Apple Jacks. It's obvious that the CBS producers, unlike their NBC counterparts, are more concerned with informing their viewers than protecting their sponsors.
It's also not surprising that the Nightly News producers gave this story to Tom Costello. Costello is one of the go-to guys when they want to protect their sponsors and withhold information from the viewers. On the 11/3/09 Nightly News, Costello did a report on harmful BPA levels in plastic bottles and canned food liners. Costello told us that the chemical was present in "brand name foods from vegetable soup to tuna fish, green beans to corn and chili." But the accompanying graphic showed only generic cans labeled "chili", "vegetable soup", "green beans" and "tuna". Not a single name brand. Meanwhile, ABC's World News reported the same story on the same night. The ABC story showed canned goods from Del Monte, Progresso, Campbell's, Hormel, Hunt's, Bush's and Chef Boyardee. As with the food dye story, Costello and his producers refrained from showing brand names in the BPA story as a favor to the many food companies that advertise on their broadcast and other NBC shows. (In the week prior to the 11/3/09 BPA report, Nightly News ran commercials for Bush's Beans, Progresso canned soups and Swanson chicken broth.)
What does it tell us that both CBS and ABC are willing to include their sponsors' products in unflattering news reports, while Nightly News is not? Simple. Nightly News makes a point of vigorously protecting and promoting their sponsors' products, while the other networks do not.