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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Press corrupted by fake news, America yawns

By Hume's Ghost

"Somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the American people" - George W. Bush, Oct. 2003

Allthough it hasn't managed to garner much attention, the FCC is currently investigating one of the most significant (at least to me) scandals of the Bush administration. The Independent reports that

Investigators from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are seeking information about stations across the country after a report produced by a campaign group detailed the extraordinary extent of the use of such items.

The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items.

"We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them," said Diana Farsetta, one of the group's researchers. "I would say it's pretty extraordinary. The picture we found was much worse than we expected going into the investigation in terms of just how widely these get played and how frequently these pre-packaged segments are put on the air."
The Center for Media and Democracy's summary of the report (and the pdf of the report itself) can be read here. The extensive use of VNR's - PR commercials disguised as news reports - is quite alarming

Over a ten-month period, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documented television newsrooms' use of 36 video news releases (VNRs)—a small sample of the thousands produced each year. CMD identified 77 television stations, from those in the largest to the smallest markets, that aired these VNRs or related satellite media tours (SMTs) in 98 separate instances, without disclosure to viewers. Collectively, these 77 stations reach more than half of the U.S. population. The VNRs and SMTs whose broadcast CMD documented were produced by three broadcast PR firms for 49 different clients, including General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One. In each case, these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting. In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients' messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety.
But here is what bothers me about this story. We already knew this. Back in January of 2005, the New York Times reported that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had found that these undisclosed VNR's constituted illegal "covert propaganda."

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said on Thursday that the Bush administration violated federal law by producing and distributing television news segments about the effects of drug use among young people.

The accountability office said the videos "constitute covert propaganda" because the government was not identified as the source of the materials, which were distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. They were broadcast by nearly 300 television stations and reached 22 million households, the office said.

The accountability office does not have law enforcement powers, but its decisions on federal spending are usually considered authoritative.
Several months later, the New York Times followed up with another report about the VNR's, this time detailing how extensive the use of this tax payer funded propaganda was.

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.
As usual, the White House rejected any notion of accountability, with the Justice Department dismissing the "usually considered authoritative" on matters of federal spending GAO's report while asserting that the VNR's were legal.

Then, in October of last year, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a somewhat toothless bill, which as far as I can tell is still waiting for a vote, to require greater disclosure of VNR's.

This story came out at about the same time that it was revealed that the Bush administration had paid four journalists - Armstrong Williams, Michael McManus, Maggie Gallagher, and Dave Smith - to shill for various policies, and around the same time that it was discovered (by Americablog) that Jeff Gannon, a fake journalist/non-credentialed Republican operative, had been allowed two years of access to White House press briefings without being granted the security clearance which is necessary for such access.

So the question I would pose is thus: one year after it has been revealed that the press has been corrupted by "covert propaganda" why are we still even discussing this? Why have we not put a stop to this? I'm not being pedantic, either. I have my own ideas, but I'm honestly looking to encourage discussion on this topic. Why is it that the American public seems to not mind the manipulation of the truth in an effort to subvert democracy?

UPDATE: It's come to my attention that when I first posted this entry two links were missing - "covert propaganda" and "another report" - and they've subsequently been added back in. I would particularly recommend reading this New York Times article about just how extensively these faux news reports have seeped into the media (and here are few more examples of the lines being blurred between reporting and advertising). These stories are like commercials for the administration disguised as independent reporting.

In the comments some readers brought up the stir that was raised when it was found that the U.S. was planting news stories in Iraqi papers. Critics of this practice, like Chris Hitchens, observed that this propaganda could not help but be turned back on America, and not accidentally. In that Times report you can see that this practice had already been used on Americans, on purpose.

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.”
Addendum: Corrections to this post

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