Saturday, March 12, 2005

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.


Anonymous said...

This is what bureaucracies do. The first rule of any bureaucracy is to preserve and enlarge the bureaucracy. You cannot blame this Administration any more than you can blame the Clinton Administration for doing the same thing. By the way, "public outreach" is written into the charter of many Federal Administrations. For instance, NASA is required to do "public education and outreach" by law. The real villains here are clearly the broadcast stations. They regularly receive VNRs from a wide variety of interested parties - Greenpeace has good ones with dolphins swimming alongside their rubber dingies, for instance - and re-package them. Far too often, on a "slow" news day, this is the easy way out. Every story needs pictures, and there are only so many newscrews to go around in Kalamazoo or Peoria or Quad Cities. Sometimes entire broadcasts are cobbled together from satellite newsfeeds. As far as I am concerned this is a far more serious story about ethics in broadcast journalism than anything about politics. Ask yourself the classic "free speech" test: if I agreed with the policies being promoted, would I object so strenously? For instance, if the Department of Justice offered news releases touting a program that involved prosecution of violent anti-abortion protestors, would you object as strenously if it were simply re-packaged as "news"? In the end, all government agencies promote themselves and their policies and we shouldn't act surprised when they employ the latest techniques from public relations and journalism to do this. Its the journalists that we need to worry about here....

Anonymous said...

Anthony, your dyspeptic rants are getting old. DK is among the few who would give you a forum. Give the guy some respect. (Believe it or not, you're not as smart as he is, your screams to the contrary).

Steve said...

"It's what bureacracies do"

Well, OK. But it's not what news organizations should do, which is IF they stoop to using pre-packaged "news', at the very least make it clear what the source of the material is.

PR has overtaken news. Enough of us can be "sold" a reality that doesn't really exist. I suspect it was ever thus. Now the effect is amplified by technology.

But what's the solution? I want you to get up, open the window and scream like Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Which makes me shake my head and mourn Jerry Williams. I didn't share most of his politics or his attitude during his last decade or so, but we sure do need passion like that now.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous above:

It's also the first rule of any corporation, individual, family, or small business is to preserve and enlarge its power, too. That's not driving this. The Bush admin uses a 1-2-3 combination punch to push their agenda, and these fake news spots are just one punch (others are censorship and journalist payola).

When HHS scrubs its websites and publications of info about condoms or comprehensive sex ed., they aren't "educating" the public, they're deceiving them for political gain (likewise for censoring climate reports and Medicare cost estimates they don't like).

No other administration has even tried such tactics on a scale like this, and it's surely bad for the country.

Nelson, Roslindale