GIVE THEM ENOUGH ROPE. The media story of next week will appear in tomorrow's New York Times, and it's already up on the Web. Headlined "Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News," the lengthy piece - by David Barstow and Robin Stein - takes a close look at the Bush administration's practice of flooding bottom-line-obsessed local television news outlets with feel-good video press releases that are often aired without being identified as government propaganda.
Though the Clinton administration apparently practiced this dark art as well, it appears to have accelerated greatly under Bush, whose deputies have used the fake news reports to pump up everything from Iraq and Afghanistan to his agriculture policies. Barstow and Stein write:
Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.
But what's especially disconcerting is how willing some "news" operations have been to play along. In many cases, the videos arrive properly identified, so that if they were put on the air as is, viewers would at least know their source. Yet the news orgs remove that identification to make it look like they're doing their own legwork. For instance:
Even if agencies do disclose their role, those efforts can easily be undone in a broadcaster's editing room. Some news organizations, for example, simply identify the government's "reporter" as one of their own and then edit out any phrase suggesting the segment was not of their making.
So in a recent segment produced by the Agriculture Department, the agency's narrator ended the report by saying "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Yet AgDay, a syndicated farm news program that is shown on some 160 stations, simply introduced the segment as being by "AgDay's Pat O'Leary." The final sentence was then trimmed to "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting."
Brian Conrady, executive producer of AgDay, defended the changes. "We can clip 'Department of Agriculture' at our choosing," he said. "The material we get from the U.S.D.A., if we choose to air it and how we choose to air it is our choice."
Another example, this one from Champaign, Illinois:
More than a year ago, WCIA asked the Agriculture Department to record a special sign-off that implies the segments are the work of WCIA reporters. So, for example, instead of closing his report with "I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for the U.S.D.A.," Mr. Ellison says, "With the U.S.D.A., I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for 'The Morning Show.'"
[News director Jim] Gee said the customized sign-off helped raise "awareness of the name of our station." Could it give viewers the idea that Mr. Ellison is reporting on location with the U.S.D.A. for WCIA? "We think viewers can make up their own minds," Mr. Gee said.
The Bush administration is blurring the line between news and public relations, and that's bad enough. But for so-called news organizations to participate so eagerly in this loss of their own credibility is mind-boggling. Or, rather, it should be. Somehow it isn't, and perhaps that's the biggest shame of all.