When you’re cruising past the cable news channels, do you ever find yourself wondering who are those folks pontificating on TV chat shows? A new investigation provides some answers—along with lots of questions about what the cable channels are hiding from viewers.

Scores of pundits appearing on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and other networks are actually paid corporate lobbyists and public relations pros. Shamefully, the networks don’t disclose their corporate ties to us, the audience. Reporter Sebastian Jones recently revealed in The Nation magazine that at least 75 registered lobbyists, public relations representatives, and corporate executives have appeared on the cable networks since 2007, with no disclosure that they’re being paid by companies and industries to boost them. Some of these stealth corporate pundits are regulars. They’ve appeared hundreds of times on TV over the past three years.

For example, during insurance giant AIG’s collapse—and its ensuing massive government bailout—some pundits brought on to discuss the story were, unbeknownst to viewers, actually working for AIG, as lobbyists or public relations advisers. An MSNBC segment on job creation featured one guest strongly urging Obama to build more nuclear plants. Viewers should have been told that this “expert” happened to sit on the board of a major nuclear power company.

And as the health-care debate unfolded throughout the past year, a number of pundits and former lawmakers have made numerous appearances to talk about health insurance reform—all the while employed or bankrolled by insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

In almost every case, viewers had no way of knowing these guests’ affiliations.

This isn’t the first time we’ve learned that there’s often something fishy about these so-called “experts.” In 2008, The New York Times broke the story that the Pentagon had been feeding talking points to TV military analysts who were cited across national cable, network TV, and radio broadcasts. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Pentagon recruited over 75 retired generals to act as “message force multipliers” to support the war. They received special Pentagon briefings and talking points that the analysts would often parrot on national television, even when, the Times reported, “they suspected the information was false or inflated.”

Most of these “analysts” also had ties to military contractors who stood to benefit from the analysts’ on-air assessments. The military analysts themselves told the Times that “the networks asked few questions about their outside business interests,” and “were only dimly aware” of the special Pentagon briefings they were receiving.

Some networks have written policies demanding that contributors and analysts reveal their conflicts of interest. But it’s hard to take those guidelines very seriously. As Jones points out in his Nation article, one MSNBC official suggested that their idea of disclosure might be to post relevant information about their guests on the MSNBC website. That’s not going to be much help to the hundreds of thousands of people watching these PR pundits on TV.

In a media system already dominated by official sources from government and big business, why are cable channels relying on paid spokespeople and lobbyists as commentators? And why are these channels hiding the affiliations of their pundits?

Columnist Jim Hightower once suggested that politicians should be forced to wear the corporate logos of their major contributors. That idea just gets better with age, but how about we do the same with these ubiquitous TV pundits? Join us at FAIR to demand answers and accountability. Sign our petition at FAIR.org to MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Channel, demanding that they come clean about their corporate-sponsored pundits. In the meantime, crank up the skepticism every time you turn on the tube.

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Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). www.fair.org

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