Most people would probably agree that TV news anchors and reporters should have a strong determination to search for and report the truth no matter what the economic consequences to their station or network might be. I bet they would also agree that it is a journalists’ duty to expose and challenge bias or censorship within the news media. But most people don’t know that in many TV newsrooms journalists are routinely discouraged and even contractually forbidden from performing these essential duties. Furthermore, violators are severely punished. Sounds alarming, but it’s true, as I found out last summer.

On July 26, 2000, without ever submitting a letter of resignation and with the corporate security chief waiting to escort me from the building, I “resigned” from my job from my job as a Meteorologist at WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio. To put it more accurately, I was fired (TV bosses nearly always say that anchors and reporters “resigned” no matter how their employment ended. To “fire” them might cause viewers to ask too many questions: the station would have to explain why they fired the employee.) And why did I get fired? Because I challenged station policies that put severe limits on free speech, and I exposed a particular arrangement between the station and a major advertiser that allowed the advertiser—not the news department—to have direct editorial control of a daily news segment.

Before going further, I should explain that the exposé on WBNS was actually just a small part (two paragraphs) of a 4,000 word essay, titled “News Media, Corporate Power and Democracy”, that I posted on my obscure personal website ( My purpose was to write a piece of media criticism in which I would combine personal experience with institutional analysis to challenge the popular image of the news media as aggressive public watchdogs and champions of democracy. I wanted to share a few of the things I had learned about the news media after working in it for 15 years and, perhaps, challenge other anchors and reporters to think about the severe limits placed on our profession by powerful corporations.

I opened the essay by recalling how, early in my news career, I readily accepted the popular media self-image until, little by little, I noticed that newsroom policies and editorial practices didn’t support it: what we said and what we did were rarely the same. I gradually came to see that commercial pressure, not the public interest, dictated news content. In short, it’s the mad rush for advertising dollars that drives the news “business”. TV stations make money by selling audiences, or access to audiences, to advertisers (other large corporations), and advertisers aren’t necessarily interested in the whole audience. They want to reach the most privileged audience thus, all programs, especially the “news,” are aimed at specific “target” audiences prized by rich advertisers. This competition for select audience groups and advertisers is actually limiting not expanding what we see and hear (the points of view and perspectives we get) on the news.

I also argued that this practice of “narrowcasting,” rather than true broadcasting, is largely due to the anti-democratic structure of our radio and TV system: public airwaves handed over to private corporations for free with almost no regulation to ensure that the public is being properly served. We can’t escape the fact that American mass media is based on the transfer of valuable public resources to un-elected, unaccountable private corporations bent on maximizing profit rather than serving the public: it is a system controlled by the few rather than the many.

So you see, I was trying to focus on the big picture and connect it to the small picture. That’s why I also wrote about the anti-democratic structure and censorial policies within media companies, putting special focus on my own contract (which is the standard contract for WBNS news anchors and reporters). In no uncertain terms, it said that I cannot “make any statements or remarks” about the station or its sponsors that “tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably” on them. It also said that, as an employee, I could not do or say anything that might subject WBNS and its sponsors—or any other group attached to the station—to “disrespect or Of course this begs two important questions: (1.) How can the TV station, a private news outlet using the public airwaves, get constitutional free speech or “freedom of the press” protections and, at the same time, deny the same rights to it’s employees; and (2.) If a news outlet takes away or severely limits its employees’ free speech—freedom to criticize and to oppose—isn’t this a direct form of censorship that cripples the employees’ ability to be a responsible journalist?

My underlying argument was (is) that news anchors and reporters must have the freedom to initiate vigorous debate about media policies, and they must also have the freedom to question and challenge the actions of their own station and other corporations that might happen to be sponsors, or business partners, of their station. Otherwise, the entire notion of a commercial “free press” is only a sad illusion.

The idea that it is an illusion becomes more apparent in another passage in the essay. In it, I explained how a local bank became not only sponsor of a WBNS “news” segment called “Your Money,” but they also got to supply the “expert” commentator (a bank official) and write the script! Each day the bank would select a topic and fax the newsroom a set of questions for the anchors to ask the “expert” during the segment. Many of the questions referred directly to products and services sold by the bank, or addressed major policy issues that directly affect the banking industry (interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve Board). During the time I observed this practice and reviewed the faxes (approximately 3 months), the anchors didn’t deviate from the bank’s script. This was a clear case of an advertiser buying control of the news, or rather, a TV station selling control of the news. Everybody in the station knew what was happening and many co-workers quietly agreed that it was not only deceptive, but also unethical and disgusting.

Sadly, editorial arrangements like this are becoming more and more common in TV news, but TV executives are not likely to come clean about them: they’d rather have the public believe that these advertisements disguised as “news” are really fine pieces of journalism produced by station employees. Now you can see how important the ban on free speech is! If an employee decided to expose these things, it would strike at the heart of the station’s carefully manufactured image as an unbiased public servant and a noble steward of the airwaves. So, when WBNS bosses finally read my essay—after being told about it by some co-workers who had stumbled upon it—all hell broke loose, as they say.

I was quickly summoned to the General Manager’s office where I was told that I had breached my contract by writing something that could, in the words of the contract, “tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably” on the station and a sponsor. However, they never challenged the facts presented in the essay or claimed that I was lying or even making distortions: the fundamental issues I raised were never addressed. They just got all wound up because someone dared to challenge their right to censor employees and deceive the public! I must add that I was aware that my essay could be construed as a breach of contract (in strict legal terms but not in terms of real justice) although, I was a bit surprised that WBNS would act so quickly to prove a central part of my thesis: that dissent is not allowed in a corporate newsroom. After getting the boot from the GM (the first time I had ever been fired in my life), I cleaned out my desk and was quickly escorted from the building by the corporate security chief—who had been told to report to the station before I was summoned to the GM’s office.

In the days after I was fired, word of what happened spread through news media gossip channels first, then started reaching the general public. As a result, my website, which had been rarely visited, started getting hundreds of hits a day. Many viewers sent e-mails telling me they were appalled by the station’s actions. Broadcasters and journalists from all over the country (and a few from Canada) were quick to offer support and to confirm what I had written: “I agree with your comments about the erosion of competent journalism in the name of blatant capitalism…all at the expense of the viewers” were the words of one disillusioned TV reporter. Other journalists from corporate newsrooms shared their own horror stories: from being forced to do special “fluff” reports for big advertisers and business partners to “softening,” or even dumping, important investigative stories about corporate crime and abuse. Some described how internal censorship and the dizzying amount of corporate spin caused them to make the painful decision to leave journalism altogether: not exactly a ringing endorsement of the profession.

Given this high degree of dissatisfaction within the news media—which media scholar Robert W. McChesney calls “one of the most striking developments of the last 10-15 years”—and considering my particular case, I’m left with a fundamental question: If news anchors and reporters often admit privately that the news they’re broadcasting is distorted for financial reasons, and if news outlets are willing to fire those who say it publicly, can citizens even remotely expect the corporate news media to be the fierce watchdogs of the public interest they claim they are?

Appears in Issue: