Saturday, August 20, 2011

Brian Williams Makes A Full Disclosure

On Thursday, Nightly News aired a story about how dogs may be able to use their sense of smell to detect tumors during the early stages of cancer. (This was the fourth Nightly News story featuring dogs in less than two weeks. Obviously, someone from the NBC News research department informed Brian Williams that dog stories test extremely well and deliver high ratings.) After the story, Brian told Nancy Snyderman, "Full disclosure--I'm a dog person." Full disclosure. That's an interesting phrase coming from Brian because he never actually offers the disclosures that he is ethically obligated to offer. People expect their news anchors to be forthright, honest and transparent. Brian is none of those. In fact, he is the opposite. He is always hiding or disguising his shady motives for reporting certain stories. Here are some things Brian Williams should be disclosing to his viewers:

*Brian frequently uses his anchor chair to promote products that advertise on Nightly News and other NBC shows. In fact, he will read a company's press release verbatim as if it's an actual news story. Recently, he has done this with McDonald's, Walmart, Starbucks, Subway, Heinz, Frito-Lay and Kraft--among others. Sometimes, Brian and his producers will do an entire news story--often lasting more than two minutes--about an advertiser's product. Recent examples include Pringles, Microsoft Bing, United Airlines, Chrysler, McDonald's, Cheerios, Boniva, Aleve and many GlaxoSmithKline products. Brian and his producers are also fond of helping out their sponsors by including product placements in news stories. They have done this with Chevy, Cheerios, McDonald's and Bayer. Despite all these promos and product placements, Brian has never once disclosed that a product featured in a Nightly News story was also a paid advertiser. For all we know, these products are paying to be featured in the news story. Conversely, Brian also protects NBC advertisers from bad publicity. If a product that advertises on Nightly News is involved in a recall or is proven to have harmful side effects, Brian will often bury the story by delaying it until the weekend or neglecting to report it altogether.
*Brian frequently inserts clips of NBC Universal shows into news stories in order to shamelessly promote those shows. The most frequently promoted shows are "Saturday Night Live", "30 Rock", "The Office" and NBC's late-night shows hosted by Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. He never discloses that these clips are promos.
*Brian and his producers regularly allow news segments (or the entire broadcast) to be sponsored by products whose industry is reported on by Nightly News. In some cases, the sponsored segment is directly related to the product that is sponsoring it. This is completely unethical. Are we supposed to believe that these sponsorships have no bearing on the way Nightly News covers a product or an industry? Brian has never once disclosed the relationship between segment sponsors and the way he covers the news.
*Brian often brags about high ratings for NBC shows (his and others)--and he often lies about these ratings. After Brian claims a certain rating for a show, information in a New York Times article or on the TV by the Numbers website will list a significantly lower rating for the program in question. And the Nightly News ratings are artificially inflated because Brian and his producers often submit their show to Nielsen intentionally misspelled as "Nitely News". This allows lower-rated Nightly News broadcasts to be counted separately so they don't bring down the ratings of the higher-rated broadcasts. I won't hold my breath waiting for Brian to disclose this.
*Brian frequently reports on the military and on Medal of Honor winners. But Brian has never once disclosed that he serves on the Board of Directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Using your newscast to promote your favorite charity is unethical. Failing to disclose your connection is downright sleazy.
*Several months ago, Nightly News became available as an iPad app. And as soon as that happened, Brian and his producers began showing parts of news stories as if they were appearing on an iPad. Clearly, this was only done as a shameless promotion. Of course, Brian offered no disclosure.
*A significant portion of Nightly News stories are put on the air not for their news value, but for their ability to attract viewers and boost the ratings. This includes entertainment stories, Will & Kate stories (and other Royal stories), animal stories, "Making A Difference" segments, weepy rah-rah gung-ho military stories--basically everything that airs in the second half of the broadcast. I have never once heard Brian Williams offer "full disclosure" that he is airing a story solely because it will boost his ratings.

So Brian may think it's amusing for him to say, "Full disclosure--I'm a dog person." But in reality it only serves to point out the huge ethical chasm that exists in the situations where he refuses to disclose his ulterior motives for reporting a story. Full disclosure. That's a joke.

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