John Oliver’s main story on Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight” was a look at the disturbing proliferation of “sponsored content” on local TV news broadcasts, where paid content is integrated into the broadcast in a way that makes it seem like it’s real reporting meant to inform the community when in reality it’s an advertisement.
“Clearly, maintaining journalistic independence from advertisers is critically important — so important, in fact, it’s frequently referred to as the church-state wall,” Oliver said. “And the FCC has rules requiring broadcast stations to announce when content has been sponsored or paid for in any way. Unfortunately, many local stations have either completely broken those rules or violated the spirit of them through a practice known as sponsored content.”
It’s widespread and can be hard to detect, and often takes the form of scripted interviews with people pushing products – often “medically dubious” products that can be bogus and harmful and have no place in a trusted local news broadcast.
In order to shed some light on what this practice looks like and how dangerous it can be, the “Last Week Tonight” team created an obviously fake medical product called a “Venus Veil,” a “sexual wellness blanket,” and paid for some sponsored content slots on a trio of local stations. The journalists doing the interviews – one of whom was her station’s chief medical correspondent – didn’t push back on claims like “the veil is being designed with the hope that it will precisely draw out the natural alkaline undercurrents of the vagina and initiate a low-grade state of what we call ‘micro-death.’” You would hope people have a degree of healthy skepticism about everything they see on the news, but they shouldn’t be subjected to straight-up lies because someone paid to be able to tell them.
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