Propaganda and advertising

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.

7 thoughts on “Propaganda and advertising

  1. Similarly, the News Limited press (particularly the Daily Telegraph in Sydney) is fond of publishing career “opinion columns” (ads by another name) by people from CareerOne, which is of course a jobs site run by the same organisation. Funny that.

  2. Yeah, much scope for liberal hand-wringing in this story. The implications of this story are particularly serious for those who believe in the necessity of an informed public for a viable democracy. The willingness of large parts of the mainstream media to play their part in this deception dramatises liberal abdication of their role as informed sceptics.

    Of more immediate concern is the propensity of manipulators of images of reality to believe their own fabrications.

    Given the potency of the resources of the Bush Administration to buttress and reinforce their control of most important governmental institutions, not the least of which is Republican control of critical parts of the electoral “system”, things are likely to get much worse before their House of Mirrors comes crashing down.

  3. Having been involved in trying to get publicity for Not-For-Profit organisations I can understand why any organisation does the work for the journalists. Even if you write everything out for them and give them all details, including full back grounding to give context – the journalist or editor will still manage to stuff up the inforamtion you are trying to distribute.

    In relation to your specific lead in, I believe you’ll find that the Clinton Administration started the practice you refer to. Go and read Tim Blair’s site for the info.

  4. “In relation to your specific lead in, I believe you’ll find that the Clinton Administration started the practice you refer to. Go and read Tim Blair’s site for the info.”

    Umm, wouldn’t reading my own first para do as well.

  5. There are several versions of this. Advertorial, sponsor in-kind support, the production of items by science organisations, product placement and sometimes simply paying a production company to insert a certain kind of villain into a soapie.

    But the use of any of the above in a news broadcast breaks every rule in the journalist’s book and can ultimately only be dealt with by professionals who stand up and say no.

    I don’t know how far the practice extends in Australia, and for overtly political subjects I would think it doesn’t go very far. Besides, commercial broadcasters would prefer the advertisers to buy the time, as the feds have done on a huge scale.

    But organisations do provide logged reels of material which contain those bits which they want to get on television. It particularly means that broadcasters can be tempted by specialised footage which they could not get from a news crew, and by experts who provide snappy answers for once.

    The actual cut depends on the channel, and they may interview other people.

    You only have to visit a university public relations department to find people writing what they believe to be good “news” which is routinely excluded from tv because no one gets hurt, or exposed, or accused of some crime. It is not surprising that they try to seduce the broadcasters, who wouldn’t otherwise have a slot for the material.

    It is a cliche to say that television has very little space for most of the real issues that drive our public lives, but it is true. Try getting a program going about any non-sporting achievement in which an essential component is the fact that Australians did it, and see what happens.

  6. John, a small point. Your quote, “radio commentators got into a heap of strife over cash for comment”. Laws, Flint and Jones are really feeling the pressure of the strife? All likely to be awarded an Order of Australia, for service to Australia and more cars/wealth.
    Aren’t you splitting hairs just a little bit?

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