They're prettier from a distance.

CNN Blurs Line Between News and Advertising

All this week, CNN International, part of that “most trusted name in news,” has aired a series of reports on Kazakhstan. But what looks to the unsuspecting viewer like more of CNN at its finest appears in fact to be sponsored advertisements paid for by none other than Kazakhstan’s oil-rich government. 

The spots are part of CNN International’s “Eyes On” series. Pay close attention and only the one-minute promo for the series ends with an announcement, “In association with the following,” leaving the viewer to try to read two logos on screen. One is clearly Samruk Kazyna, the state fund that owns all state assets. The other, particularly fuzzy, logo is the Astana Economic Forum, the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Both link to a page promoting Astana’s bid to host Expo 2017.

Most of the spots are quirky, soft-core reportage and travelogue sprinkled with carefully framed shots of the glitziest parts of Astana and Almaty. Topics include economic diversification, transportation infrastructure, skiing, and dating games. CNN International offers no coverage of labor strikes, human rights abuses, nascent violent insurgencies, violence against women, or any other diversions from the narrative of relentless growth and limitless opportunity.

Yes, CNN has sold itself to Astana, though CNN seems reluctant to admit it. There is a tiny footnote, which appears only online, noting the Eye On series “often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile.” But television and Internet viewers are left with little indication that the programing isn’t news, but rather a flashy infomercial exploiting CNN’s waning credibility.

Samruk Kazyna was, until recently, headed by strongman Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and rumored successor, Timur Kulibayev. Kulibayev lost that position after labor strikes at an oil company owned by the fund spiraled into violence between strikers and police last December. He is currently on the board of directors at Gazprom, and the object of a European money laundering investigation.

But such details seem of little importance to CNN. For example, an interview with a Bolashak alum fails to mention that the undergraduate study abroad scholarship program is being scrapped in favor of programs at the tellingly named Nazarbayev University in Astana. Nor does it mention that the guest himself apparently works for the Presidential Administration, a fact that a simple web search reveals in the first ten hits. A similar omission is made in an oil and gas segment, where an “energy expert” just happens to be chairman of a government-operated NGO created by — you guessed it — President Nazarbayev.

EurasiaNet.org contacted CNN with questions regarding the nature of the Kazakh government’s sponsorship of this series. “Grace” at CNN Viewer Communications replied with a list of links to said same “Eye On” series where we “can find information on Kazakhstan,” along with a “thank you” and a pitch to “keep your browser pointed to CNN.com.”

It all makes one wonder if, during their travels in Kazakhstan, the CNN team learned an old adage from the region: “He who pays, picks the music.”

This article was originally published by EurasiaNet, complete with all the links. It was since covered by The Atlantic, using much of the same reportage.