Armstrong Williams famously received a contract from the US Department of Education to talk up the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. Williams’ production company has been cited for the situation by the FCC, and two TV groups, Sonshine and Sinclair, have received fines for airing Williams programming without attribution.
Williams’ Graham Williams Group (GWG) received an official citation threatening monetary punishment for similar future offenses. The FCC established that he was hired by DoED via Ketchum Inc. to push NCLB. He was cited for failing to notify recipients of his productions of this fact. These could amount to 11K per incident.
Sonshine Family Television was hit 4K a pop for 10 apparent violations for a total of 40K. Five separate episodes of "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" were played a total of 10 times. Sonshine was paid 100 dollars by GWG for each broadcast, which included NCLB promotions. The fines were for failure to disclose the compensation received, with the FCC not buying Sonshine’s argument that they were negligible.
Sinclair was hit for running a GWG program, "2004 Election Countdown" intact without attribution on nine stations for a total hit of 36K. The FCC said the program fit the definition of "broadcast political matter" and the fact that it came from GWG had to be noted, whether or not Sinclair was compensated, and whether or not the decision to run it was their own choice.
Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said in an approving statement, "The repeated revelations of advertisers paying their way onto news programming without disclosure undercut the credibility of all journalists. When budget cuts in newsrooms lead broadcasters to substitute advertisements disguised by slick public relations firms as news instead of paying for their own work, viewers and listener wonder what they can believe. When newsrooms are too strapped or sloppy to perform their due diligence and provide disclosure announcements, as required by law, it leads to a crisis of confidence."
RBR observation: We wondered when Comcast was recently hit for running VNRs on its cable news program if broadcast outlets were waiting in the wings. We now have our answer. These fines, along with those levied on Comcast, can be appealed. But they are starting to flow out of the Enforcement Bureau. Make sure your newsroom is aware.