This NYT report shows how the Bush Administration has been producing covert propaganda, which is then shown on US TV stations as news, with actors posing as reporters. It would take much more than this to surprise me in relation to the Bush Administration, and in any case, the practice apparently began under Clinton.
What did strike me was that, while the NYT went in for plenty of handwringing about the government manipulating the news, the report showed no concern about the fact (news to me) that corporations have been doing this for years, more or less openly, to the extent that those involved in producing “video news releases” have their own association, annual awards and so on
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.
Of course, reprinting press releases with minimal editing has been a standby of lazy journalists for decades. But the standard press release story opens with what is presented as a paraphrase of a quote “In Washington today, Senator X criticised the neglect of problem Y …” or whatever. Even if the reader is led to imagine that the statement was actually made to an audience of reporters, there’s no serious deception, though a well-designed press release can certainly ensure that the writer’s key points get prominently reported in a way that makes them seem like fact rather than opinion.
But the video news release goes way beyond this. The closest analog in the print world is those supplements, designed to look like news, with “advertisement” in small print at the bottom of the page.
I don’t know anything about the legality of all this. Here in Australia, radio commentators got into a heap of strife over “cash for comment”, accepting money from corporations to say nice things about them. But this was advertising presented as opinion. Presenting advertising as news seems far worse to me.
The issue of paid-for or sponsored political comment has already arisen in relation to blogging. It seems unlikely that commercial PR can be far behind, if it isn’t here already.