The FCC wants to know if dozens of broadcasters aired "video news releases" as legitimate news stories without telling viewers that their true sponsors were corporations.
FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the agency issued 42 formal letters of inquiry to holders of 77 broadcast licenses in its investigation of the practice.
"The public has a legal right to know who seeks to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about the credibility of the information presented," Adelstein said. "Shoddy practices make it difficult for viewers to tell the difference between news and propaganda."
In April, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy filed a complaint with the FCC after the center conducted a study finding unattributed video news releases (VNRs) had been aired at 77 stations. In its complaint, the organization accused Sinclair Broadcast Group, Fox Television Stations, Clear Channel Communications, Tribune Co., and Viacom/CBS of failing to disclose the true sponsors of the VNRs.
The nonprofit groups said the practice "has infiltrated broadcast news programming across the country."
The commission refused to immediately release the letters, which were to have been sent Friday.
On April 13, 2005, the commission unanimously told the media of its responsibility to divulge sponsors. At the time, the commission reminded broadcast and cable operators of their obligation to "clearly disclose to members of their audience the nature, source, and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing."
If the commission determines after investigation that a licensee has violated sponsorship identification rules, the FCC may impose monetary fines of up to $32,500 per violation and initiate license-revocation proceedings against licensees. Section 507 of the Communications Act establishes civil and criminal penalties for violation of disclosure requirements, with the possibility of a fine of up to $10,000 and as much as a year of imprisonment.
"I'm pleased that the commission has issued these letters of inquiry," Adelstein said. "We need a full and thorough investigation to learn all of the facts surrounding the undisclosed broadcast of what appears to be commercial material and prosecute any violations to the full extent of the law."