Fear And Favor 2001


Fear & Favor is FAIR’s annual review of incidents that reflect the range of pressures on reporters to use something other than journalistic judgment in deciding what goes in the news and what gets left out. The year 2001 presented special challenges in this regard. The horrific September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the ensuing declaration by the Bush administration of an open-ended “war on terrorism,” meant incredible pressure on the press corps to present U.S. actions and policy in the best light; incidents of outright censorship occurred, and even more self-censorship, as many outlets confused independent inquiry with a lack of patriotism.

At the same time, there was no let-up in pressure from the more usual sources: media owners and advertisers. Corporate media owners increasingly see using their media outlets to promote their other businesses and the perspectives they favor as simply standard business practice; and advertisers, in a time of recession, appear to feel freer than ever to demand a favorable context for their ads, which are, after all, media’s main revenue source. Further consolidation in the industry, abetted and encouraged by a deregulatory FCC, only promises more to come.

Surveys of journalists have noted such problems for years. A 2001 survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (Columbia Journalism Review, 11-12/01), for example, found that 53 percent of local news directors “reported advertisers try to tell them what to air and not to air and they say the problem is growing.” Such pressures, PEJ’s report indicates, are not unusual but constant.

As we noted last year, this report is in no sense comprehensive. It is an attempt to add specificity to growing concerns about various pressures that push and pull media to serve other than the public interest. Not included here are other kinds of conflicts that doubtless also affect coverage. A number of newspaper companies refused to carry an ad critical of major advertiser Home Depot, with Massachusetts-based Community Newspaper Co. explaining, “We don’t want to upset them” (Ascribe Newswire, 11/20/01). Cable companies, including industry dominant AOL/Time Warner, refuse to run ads for potential broadband Internet rivals. Media consumers are right to question whether such policies are restricted only to the ad department or affect news decisions as well.

It’s a journalistic truism that integrity is a media outlet’s main asset; even the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines readers and viewers trust. Evidence of the creeping abandonment of such basic premises abounds. But Fear & Favor sticks to discrete cases of demonstrable influence from outside the newsroom–influence that has shaped the news.

We gladly acknowledge that there are still many journalists who, faced with pressure, vague or overt, carrot or stick, from sponsors or powerful community members or their own corporate HQ, nevertheless stand firm and produce reporting that is hard-hitting, independent and honest. It is to those journalists who work “without fear or favor” that this report is dedicated.

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