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Sunday, March 13, 2005

There's no such thing as TV 'news.'

What distinguishes TV news from propaganda these days? According to a long front-page story in today's New York Times, news directors at many of the country's TV stations don't know or don't care. Government-produced "video news releases" are routinely presented on local and even network newscasts as journalism — with no mention that the video segments were produced and reported by public relations agents working for the government. Needless to say, the videos present the administration's views free of any challenge or criticism — just as the more widespread practice of corporate video news releases allows business and other large institutions to promote their perspectives night after night on the local news.

David Barstow and Robin Stein write:

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.

A congressional investigation into "covert propaganda" produced and distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy concluded last fall that "the two agencies 'designed and executed' their segments 'to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations.'" Consider this story:

On Sept. 11, 2002, WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with an uplifting report on how assistance from the United States was helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan.

Tish Clark, a reporter for WHBQ, described how Afghan women, once barred from schools and jobs, were at last emerging from their burkas, taking up jobs as seamstresses and bakers, sending daughters off to new schools, receiving decent medical care for the first time and even participating in a fledgling democracy. Her segment included an interview with an Afghan teacher who recounted how the Taliban only allowed boys to attend school. An Afghan doctor described how the Taliban refused to let male physicians treat women.

In short, Ms. Clark's report seemed to corroborate, however modestly, a central argument of the Bush foreign policy, that forceful American intervention abroad was spreading freedom, improving lives and winning friends.

What the people of Memphis were not told, though, was that the interviews used by WHBQ were actually conducted by State Department contractors. The contractors also selected the quotes used from those interviews and shot the video that went with the narration. They also wrote the narration, much of which Ms. Clark repeated with only minor changes.

As it happens, the viewers of WHBQ were not the only ones in the dark.

Ms. Clark, now Tish Clark Dunning, said in an interview that she, too, had no idea the report originated at the State Department. "If that's true, I'm very shocked that anyone would false report on anything like that," she said.

How a television reporter in Memphis unwittingly came to narrate a segment by the State Department reveals much about the extent to which government-produced news accounts have seeped into the broader new media landscape.

The explanation begins inside the White House, where the president's communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11, 2001, to encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism. The idea, they explained to reporters at the time, was to counter charges of American imperialism by generating accounts that emphasized American efforts to liberate and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

An important instrument of this strategy was the Office of Broadcasting Services, a State Department unit of 30 or so editors and technicians whose typical duties include distributing video from news conferences. But in early 2002, with close editorial direction from the White House, the unit began producing narrated feature reports, many of them promoting American achievements in Afghanistan and Iraq and reinforcing the administration's rationales for the invasions. These reports were then widely distributed in the United States and around the world for use by local television stations. In all, the State Department has produced 59 such segments.

United States law contains provisions intended to prevent the domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign audiences, but not at home. Yet State Department officials said that law does not apply to the Office of Broadcasting Services. In any event, said Richard A. Boucher, a State Department spokesman: "Our goal is to put out facts and the truth. We're not a propaganda agency."

Even so, as a senior department official, Patricia Harrison, told Congress last year, the Bush administration has come to regard such "good news" segments as "powerful strategic tools" for influencing public opinion. And a review of the department's segments reveals a body of work in sync with the political objectives set forth by the White House communications team after 9/11.

Throughout the Times story, government officials feign astonishment that news programs present their stories as anything but government-produced materials. (To quote the title of philosopher Harry Frankfurt's newly released book: Bullshit.) And news directors deny that any such thing goes on at their stations — until the Times shows them just how often the practice, which violates the code of ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, goes on at their stations. In some cases, the stations willingly and actively blur the distinction between propaganda and journalism, as with WCIA in central Illinois, which "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 reports 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.'"

Mr. 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.


("Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News," David Barstow and Robin Stein, New York Times 3.13.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 13 March 2005 at 12:58 PM

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March 15, 2005 03:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Followups: CJR Daily and Dan Kennedy's Media Log.

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