Is FTC Running a Deceptive Story?

Federal Trade Commission distributes DTV-transition release reformatted as news article.

Part of the job of the Federal Trade Commission is to crack down on deceptive advertising. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is attacking unattributed video-news releases.

But that hasn’t stopped the FTC from distributing a digital-TV-transition alert -- using information from the FCC, among others -- in the form of a press release that was formatted as a news story and bicycled to thousands of newspapers across the country.

The government has come under increasing scrutiny for the way it distributes information, from paying African-American radio host Armstrong Williams to talk up No Child Left Behind, to embedding Iraq analysts on cable news programs, to presenting the administration’s opinion, to producing unattributed VNRs on a variety of topics.

On July 1, the FTC had a feature article on the DTV transition pushed to community newspapers nationwide via the North American Precis Syndicate, a company that distributes press releases and VNRs in news-story format.

The article that NAPS sent out was a cut-down version of a consumer alert the FTC posted on its site June 27, but without any indication that it was created by the FTC. That alert -- which, in its full form, was also picked up by various Web sites that did source the FTC -- was produced with information from the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter-box-coupon program.

An FTC spokesman said the commission sees no problem with reformatting the release as a news story. But Kelly McBride, ethics-group leader at the Poynter Institute, which mulls journalistic issues, checked out the link to the online DTV story and wasn’t as comfortable.