Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Not Necessarily the News

Fueled by a story in the March 13 edition of The New York Times, many on the left have been skewering the White House in recent weeks for its concerted efforts to push propaganda masquerading as real news.

I'm a bit late getting around to this subject, but bear with me a bit if you would, 'cause I do think I can actually add a bit of perspective (this might be the only time in my life that I really can add perspective, so indulge me; this is a red-letter day for the McInerney clan) ...

The exhaustive report by David Barstow and Robin Stein is certainly en eye-opener, noting how the Bush Administration produced scores of ersatz TV news segments touting various policy initiatives, everything from the Iraq War and the Medicare prescription drug benefit to after-school tutoring programs and attempts to curb childhood obesity.

From the Times:

"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.

"This winter, Washington has been roiled by revelations that a handful of columnists wrote in support of administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments from the government. But the administration's efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations, given industry ethics standards that discourage the broadcast of prepackaged news segments from any outside group without revealing the source."

Having been intimately involved with the broadcast media once upon a time, I have to say, and it pains me to do so, I think the Bush Administration has been unfairly bashed over the matter. Instead, I fault the many TV news stations that were just too ignorant, lazy and generally apathetic to downlink and air freebie news stories without ever bothering to ponder where these news feeds originated (Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World offers a succinct explanation of how these free video feeds work).

The fact is that federal agencies are simply producing a visual form of a press release, which reporters, rightly or wrongly, have relied on since the dawn of time to craft news stories. And yes, such releases are typically presented in written form as if they were actual honest-to-goodness news articles. It's just public relations, folks, and politically motivated governmental entities have as much a right to exploit it as furniture stores and toothpaste manufacturers.

Undoubtedly the Bush Administration has been, er, mighty zealous exploiting the potential of video news releases, or VNRs, as they are called. But zealous doesn't necessarily equal insidious. As scheming and Machiavellian as this White House shows itself to be time and time again, there's no disputing that governmental public relations offices have a responsibility to inform the public about what their respective agencies are up to -- and that boils down to promotion of agendas.

But here's the rub, as the Times continues:

"It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of satellite transmissions, Web portals, syndicated news programs and network feeds, only to emerge cleansed on the other side as 'independent' journalism.

"It is also a world where all participants benefit.

"Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting."

TV stations often pick up and air such VNRs. Do the producers, assignments editors and managing editors who pluck such VNRS from the recesses of satellite space know these stories are coming courtesy of Uncle Sam?

Much of the time, no.

Do they try to find out from where these VNRs originate? Not too often. Such thoroughness, sadly, isn't always a top priority for twentysomething TV news staffers frantically scanning wire copy, faxes and emails in search of things to fill air time. And with a swelling of TV news programs -- both on the national and local levels -- the main thrust of television news is one of feeding the beast. Fill time, show video. Fill time, show video. It's a dangerous one-two combination for the credibility of broadcast journalism. Many local affiliates have six or more news shows in the course of a weekday, but for most outlets there has not been a corresponding investment in bolstered resources and staff.

In that milieu, VNRs are manna from heaven.

And to make matters worse, they are often cannibalized by the local TV folks to resemble a story that has been locally shot, written and produced.

By way of example, The New York Times looked at WCIA, a small station in central Illinois. News director Jim Gee explained how agriculture-related stories became feasible as a result of VNRs produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

" 'I don't want to use the word "filler," per se, but they meet a need we have,' Mr. Gee said.

"WCIA ... has run 26 segments made by the Agriculture Department over the past three months alone. Or put another way, WCIA has run 26 reports that did not cost it anything to produce.

"Mr. Gee, the news director, readily acknowledges that these accounts are not exactly independent, tough-minded journalism. But, he added: ''We don't think they're propaganda. They meet our journalistic standards. They're informative. They're balanced.'

"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.' "

Bottom line, as far as I can see, is this: The feds could and should consider mandating that VNRs state clearly and unequivocally what entity is responsible for them. After all, agencies that put out press releases typically identify themselves at the top of the document, and they routinely list contact names and information.

But, ultimately, broadcast journalism needs to police itself. As television news continues to bemoan the consistent decline in viewership, the stations have only themselves to blame.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

"But, ultimately, broadcast journalism needs to police itself. As television news continues to bemoan the consistent decline in viewership, the stations have only themselves to blame."

Indeed. Their use of nonlocal footage is embarrassing whether it's silly VNRs or photogenic peril/tragedy from some other part of the world with no bearing on the local audience. It's why an award like "Best Local Newscast" is comparable to "most humane execution." With the execution, someone's still dead. With the TV newscast, there's still crap all over my living room.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Dr. Pants said...

You are absolutely right. I'm not saying the Bush Administration isn't wrong in this (and so, so, so many other things), but it's not like they were forced to air the stuff (except on Fox News).

If anybody is to blame, it's the lazy journalists. I get press releases all the time. Doesn't mean I print them up as fact.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Hortense Scabbard said...

I agree with wholeheartedly with Brett and Pants M.D. Any assignments editor or news director who receives a VNR, either by tape or feed, knows what it is before they decide to run it. Either the ND is blinded by ideology, sheer laziness or lazy ideology when he or she runs with it, and either way, it is bad for news.

Then again, almost anything would be better than the amount of time KFOR spent giving itself spastic strokes over its new doppler -- especially after they dicked the dachshund over last weekend's alleged 100 percent chance of rain. What you thought was a high-pressure system in the west was just something Mike Morgan left on the green screen.

At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Hortense Scabbard said...

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