CNN and the Business of State-Sponsored TV News
MEDIA, 10 September 2012
by Glenn Greenwald – The Guardian
The network is seriously compromising its journalism in the Gulf states by blurring the line between advertising and editorial.
Report: why didn’t CNNi air its own ‘iRevolution’ documentary?
Today [4 Sep 2012] I reported on the refusal of CNN International (CNNi) to broadcast an award-winning documentary, “iRevolution”, that was produced in early 2011 as the Arab Spring engulfed the region and which was highly critical of the regime in Bahrain. The documentary, featuring CNN‘s on-air correspondent Amber Lyon, viscerally documented the brutality and violence the regime was using against its own citizens who were peacefully protesting for democracy. Commenting on why the documentary did not air on CNNi, CNN’s spokesman cited “purely editorial reasons”.
Even so, the network’s relationships with governments must bear closer examination. CNNi has aggressively pursued a business strategy of extensive, multifaceted financial arrangements between the network and several of the most repressive regimes around the world which the network purports to cover. Its financial dealings with Bahrain are deep and longstanding.
CNNi’s pursuit of sponsorship revenue from the world’s regimes
CNNi’s pursuit of and reliance on revenue from Middle East regimes increased significantly after the 2008 financial crisis, which caused the network to suffer significant losses in corporate sponsorships. It thus pursued all-new, journalistically dubious ways to earn revenue from governments around the world. Bahrain has been one of the most aggressive government exploiters of the opportunities presented by CNNi.
These arrangements extend far beyond standard sponsorship agreements for advertising of the type most major media outlets feature. CNNi produces those programs in an arrangement it describes as “in association with” the government of a country, and offers regimes the ability to pay for specific programs about their country. These programs are then featured as part of CNNi’s so-called “Eye on” series (“Eye on Georgia“, “Eye on the Phillipines“, “Eye on Poland“), or “Marketplace Middle East“, all of which is designed to tout the positive economic, social and political features of that country.
The disclosure for such arrangements is often barely visible. This year, for instance, CNNi produced an “Eye on Lebanon” series, which that nation’s tourist minister boasted was intended “to market Lebanon as a tourism destination”. He said “his ministry was planning a large promotional campaign dubbed ‘Eye on Lebanon’ to feature on CNN network.”
Yet one strains to find the faded, small disclosure print on this “Eye on Lebanon” page, even if one is specifically searching for it. To the average viewer unaware of these government sponsorships, it appears to be standard “reporting” from the network.
That tiny disclosure provides that “CNN’s Eye On series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile.” In other instances, such as its online promotion for “Eye on Georgia”, no such disclaimer is provided.
A recent critique from the Atlantic’s website of the network’s “Eye on Kazakhstan” series noted that “there are some unusual things going on with CNN International’s Kazakhstan series” but “you’d have to know the country pretty well to spot them.”
Specifically, as Myles Smith, a Central Asia-based consultant, reported in a piece entitled “Kazakhstan: CNN Blurs Line Between News and Advertising”, the program ends with an “in association” disclosure that merely shows two unnamed corporate logos: as it turns out, those logos are of agencies of the Kazakh government, though the average viewer would have no way of knowing this. The program also features an expert guest who, undisclosed to the viewer, is an employee of the Kazakh government. As Smith commented:
“[T]elevision and internet viewers are left with little indication that the programing isn’t news, but rather a flashy infomercial exploiting CNN’s waning credibility.”
CNN’s “sponsorship policy“, which bears a date after this controversy arose over its rosy-eyed “Eye On” program about Kazakhstan, states that:
“‘[P]arts of CNN’s coverage beyond the daily news are produced as Special Reports, which attract sponsors who pay to associate their products or services with the editorial content,’ but claims that ‘at no stage do the sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers.’”
Even so, CNNi’s editorial conduct toward Bahrain, combined with its aggressive pursuit of money from the regime, raises serious questions about its ability, or desire, to maintain journalistic independence.
CNNi’s financial dealings with the regime in Bahrain
At the same time as CNN was covering the regime, Bahrain was an aggressive participant in CNN’s various “sponsorship” opportunities, with official agencies of the regime often boasting of how their extensive involvement with CNN was improving the nation’s image around the world. Beyond that, there are multiple examples of CNN International producing plainly propagandistic coverage of the regime, often without any minimal disclosure of the vested interests of its sources.
The primary regime agency exploiting these opportunities at CNNi is the Bahrain Economic Development Board (BEDB). It describes itself as “responsible for marketing the Kingdom of Bahrain abroad”. The agency is chaired by “His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince”.
In its 2010 annual report, the BEDB – in the section entitled “Spreading the Word – at Home and Abroad” – proudly touted its extensive involvement with CNN:
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