June 24, 2021

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Local news is very important to any community, and “not just in a civic sense,” John Oliver said on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. It’s a trusted source of information, a way to hold local politicians and businesses accountable, and also “a major money-maker for stations,” he said. “But the need to both inform a community and make money has always been tricky to reconcile.”

“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,” where “advertising is blended directly into the broadcast.” Sponsored content is “both more widespread and harder to detect than you might realize,” he said. “Sometimes local businesses will pay for an interview where they can script the questions and make sure that they’re presented glowingly.”

Even if these “trusted local TV” shows stay just on the legal side of the FCC rules, they still shouldn’t sell themselves out for uncritical coverage of questionable medical devices and treatments, Oliver argued. “You might think viewers should be smart enough to approach anything on these shows with skepticism. The thing is, though, many of these stations also swap figures between their newsroom and their sponsored-content shows.”

If you watch Last Week Tonight regularly enough, you might see where this is going. “Right now, it’s far too easy to make a ridiculous product that makes outlandish claims and get it onto local TV,” Oliver said. “And the reason I know that is, we did. We started a company called Venus Inventions and created something called the ‘Venus Veil,’ an absurd medical product based on technology that absolutely doesn’t exist.” His team also created a website and hired an actress — and humiliated a trio of local TV shows.

“It was all shockingly affordable and, sadly, on some stations, didn’t even look that out of place,” Oliver said. And given the importance of local news, “that is not good.” You can watch the real TV news segments and fake testimonials about the “sexual wellness blanket” at the website, and watch Oliver’s segment, with cameos from George Clooney and NSFW language, below. Peter Weber

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