Advertorializing: CNN and the Business of State-Sponsored TV News_Featured_, Corporate Controlled Media Thursday, September 6th, 2012
The network is seriously compromising its journalism in the Gulf states by blurring the line between advertising and editorial
By Glenn Greenwald
(Guardian.co.uk) Today 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 thatnation’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, reportedin 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:
The BEDB also featured an extensive, image-improving advertising campaign on CNN:
This extensive relationship had been building for many years. A 2008 article in a journal devoted to media advertisement in the Middle East trumpeted:
“CNN International announced that its coverage of the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos is being exclusively sponsored by the Bahrain Economic Development Board (BEDB) for the second year running.”
It quoted Rani R Raad, CNNi’s advertising head:
“Bahrain is one of the fastest growing economies in the Middle East and World Economic Forum is a natural fit for the BEDB to reach our audience of global opinion formers and influencers.”
In a 2010 announcement heralding more BEDB sponsorship of CNN’s Davos coverage, including “exclusive BEDB branding” on CNN.com’s World Economic Forum microsite, Rand stated:
“We’re delighted that our partnership with the BEDB remains an enduring and successful one.”
As negative news stories of its brutal repression grew in the wake of the Arab Spring, the regime undertook a massive, very well-funded PR campaign to improve its image. Central to that campaign was CNN International.
One large contract was with the advertising giant M&C Saatchi. As Bahrain Watch documents, “around the same time that the Arab Spring protests began in Bahrain in February 2011, M&C Saatchi was awarded a contract by the Bahrain International Circuit to advertise the 2011 Formula 1 race,” and was then “awarded a five-year contract worth BD 5.5m (US$14,575,000) by the Economic Development Board” to “develop and implement a comprehensive media and promotional plan” for Bahrain. As Bahrain Watch notes, a new contract with Bahrain’s ministry of culture resulted in this:
And as noted in the accompanying article on Lyon and CNNi’s refusal to broadcast the “iRevolution” documentary, at least one of the largest PR firms working for the regime, Qorvis Communications, voiced complaints to CNNi about its negative coverage of the regime.
CNNi’s merger of advertisement and news for Bahrain
The regime in Bahrain often openly trumpets the hagiographical treatment it receives from CNNi. In 2010, BEDB’s website gushed about CNNi’s “Eye on Bahrain” series, which had been re-branded as CNN i-List Bahrain. “Between the 8th and the 12th of March 2010, CNN’s Richard Quest with John Defterios – Quest Means Business show was broadcast live from Bahrain,” the BEDB wrote. The regime agency described the CNNi show as thus:
“[A] comprehensive review of Bahrain’s economy and future direction was presented through a series of interviews with various ministers, sector specialists and more.”
The BEDB page touting the show features several incredibly supine interviews by CNNi of various Bahraini officials, including its crown prince. It features a CNNi segment on the status of Bahrain as a close and loyal US ally. Still another segment hailed the kindgom’s “established legal framework” as the key to avoiding the worst damage of the financial crisis.
To describe the entire program as a massive, blatant propaganda show for the regime is to understate the case. Indeed, as noted above, the BEDB itself described the program as “a joint cooperation between CNN and” itself. CNNi’s promotion of the program, which contains no disclosure whatsoever of the involvement of the regime in its funding and sponsorship, conveys exactly the tone and substance of this “reporting”:
This type of fawning coverage of the regime has been standard course for CNN for years. In 2008, CNN’s John Defterios, on his “Marketplace Middle East” blog, heaped praise on the crown prince. Of his first time in the prince’s presence, he wrote:
“A big smile and warm greeting clearly mask the undertaking within the court of the crown prince to complete an economic and political reform process.”
Defterios hailed the Bahraini prince as a reformer who believes “there was too much resistance to change.” His Marketplace show has featuredwholly sycophantic interviews with the CEO of the BEDB.
CNN’s efforts on behalf of the regime often violate the most basic precepts of journalistic disclosure obligations, sometimes in ways that are shocking even to the cynical eye. Just two weeks ago, on the website for Fareed Zakaria’s program, CNN featured an article by Rob Sobhani touting all of the “innovative” green energy policies Bahrain is pursuing. This is all designed, Sobhani wrote, “to make Bahrain a global leader in combating climate change and global warming”. Indeed, he said, “both issues are personally important to King Hamad.”