BROOKE GLADSTONE: A Denver-based organization called the Rocky Mountain Media Watch has submitted an unusual petition to the Federal Trade Commission. They are asking the FTC to ban the local TV stations from advertising their nightly newscasts as -- news! Quoting from the petition: the programs are substantially non-news comprised of violence, mayhem, entertainment and fluff. This false and deceptive advertising contravenes the station's obligations as public trustees. Joining me now is the chairman of the board of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, Jason Salzman. Welcome to On the Media.
JASON SALZMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jason just because you'd like the local stations to feature more serious and important stories, does that make what they're doing "not news?"
JASON SALZMAN: Individually some stories can be considered news, but if you look at their broadcasts in the main, the news broadcasts, they basically cover four topics: weather, sports, violence which is crime and disaster, and celebrity fluff. Now according to the Society of Professional Journalists and journalistic standards that are widely accepted, that is not news. News should contain diverse opinions, a balance of stories so that people can be informed in a democracy. So we don't think they broadcast news on their programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well that the news covers crime and murder and you even put coverage of war into your petition, does this really fun afoul of what you think the definition of news is?
JASON SALZMAN: Oh, absolutely not. They should cover those topics - violent topics - topics that people don't want to see, but day after day to repeat the same very narrow band of topics -- that's not news. It becomes entertainment. For years we've done extensive content analysis of these shows, and they don't just do it a day here and a day there -- this is their fare constantly. That's why we think they're not informing the public and they shouldn't say they are. They shouldn't call it news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now you know there's no real definition of news. It's just the plural of new -- so what a tabloid covers and what the Economist covers are very different subjects, but are you saying that the tabloids aren't covering the news?
JASON SALZMAN: Local TV news stations are licensed to broadcast in the public interest. So we think they have a heightened standard, and we're only asking them to meet their own professional journalistic standards of news. We don't think it's appropriate for a public trustee to lure news consumers to their entertainment shows by calling them news! It's that simple.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:If you found that the next few episodes of Frasier weren't funny, would you petition the FTC to stop NBC from labeling it a comedy?
JASON SALZMAN: In their roles as public trustees, the stations aren't required to make things funny. They would -- but they are required to broadcast news and information that citizens need.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now last year you petitioned the FCC to deny license renewals to local stations. What happened then?
JASON SALZMAN:The FCC came back to us and said that they don't regulate content. You know they don't want to violate the stations' First Amendment rights. Fair enough. This time we're saying they can broadcast whatever they want. They can broadcast mayhem all the time around the clock; just don't call it news. This gets around the censorship issue. We're not censoring what they're saying. We're not telling them to not broadcast certain topics. We're just saying if it's not news, don't call it news. Don't engage in false advertising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well let me ask you this then: suppose in the remote possibility that the FTC actually does act on your petition, then what do the stations do? Do they make news and then do they have to go back to the FTC and then are you asking the government to decide what is news and what isn't?
JASON SALZMAN: Just as the FTC sets advertising standards for other industries, they can do that for these news broadcasting stations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the FCC won't even do that!
JASON SALZMAN: The FCC rejected our complaint because they didn't want to censor the news. We're saying you can broadcast infotainment. Just call it that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're asking the government to judge what is valuable material and what isn't!
JASON SALZMAN: No. We're asking the government to make sure that they, that these stations are engaging in truthful advertising. That's it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If it's not news, what do you think they should call it?
JASON SALZMAN:Infotainment. You know we joked around. They could call it Mayhem, Fluff, Weather and Sports but, seriously, it, it's-- it's, it's a form of infotainment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you allow them to say caution -- may contain news-like material?
JASON SALZMAN: [LAUGHS] Actually that wa-- is in our petition as an option.