Time to get mad

March 21, 2005

I can’t believe it.

Not just that the Bush administration is spending tens of millions of dollars of public money ¾ the same tax dollars that it says it collects from us only with the greatest reluctance ¾ to produce self-congratulatory, news-like videos that are meant to be mistaken for independent reporting.

Not just that Bush’s Justice Department, faced with a straight-up finding by Congress’ nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that such propaganda is illegal, tells executive branch agencies to keep on doing it anyway.

Not just that make-believe news from both government and business is sneaking into what the public is encouraged to believe is honest reporting, and is welcomed by TV bosses, who are tickled that somebody else is picking up the tab to fill newscasts their overfed owners are too cheap to stock with real news.

That’s plenty bad. But what leaves me sputtering in disbelief is that this unfathomably cynical attempt to subvert even the possibility of independent, truth-seeking media is being so abjectly, so supinely accepted.

Where is the outrage? We have Congressional hearings over doped-up outfielders and not this? We have regulators bleeding from the eyeballs over a naked breast but not over systematic deceit suckering millions of TV viewers? Why don’t the same newspapers that pulp acres of woodland to carry Monday’s weekend sports roundup and Thursday’s Model Homes Bazaar devote some serious space to exposing this assault on the late, great media?

What about the public? Why aren’t audiences furious over the hypocrisy of those grinning TV news “teams” that implore us for tips about News That Works for You?

Here’s some news, pal: Your profession is being trashed, corrupted. How’s that for a scoop? Now run with it.

Fat chance.

In recent weeks it has become apparent that the skill, sophistication, audacity and determination of our most powerful institutions to make news outlets serve as propaganda mills has hit new heights of guile and unscrupulousness.

We already knew the Bush administration was covertly paying ostensibly independent commentators huge amounts of our money to drool over its policies in public. Now we learn that the administration spent $254 million in its first term ¾ double what the Clinton people spent, which was already way too much ¾ on outside public relations contracts. That has paid for hundreds of pre-packaged, ready-for-broadcast TV reports from at least 20 federal agencies, according to a lengthy report in The New York Times.

And that doesn’t include the propaganda produced for foreign eyes, thanks to the miracle of the Wired World, blows back to penny-pinching TV news directors in the States. These dedicated professionals then routinely strip out evidence of governmental provenance and splice in their own staff voice-overs, creating cut-rate facsimiles of real journalism ¾ minus the critical judgment and independence of mind we expect of real journalists.

Maybe the administration’s real aim is not so much to exploit news channels as to discredit them, finally and for good.

But more likely, true to its ideology, the administration is simply following the lead of the corporate sector it reveres. There, marketers have been perfecting the video news release. Unnoticed by most of us, video news releases (VNRs) have been slipped in to TV news for years now, providing footage local outfits aren’t willing to get for themselves — and including the plugs and promotional content that the undisclosed sponsors paid for.

That’s about to get worse too. Joe Mandese, a New York-based advertising analyst, reports in a forthcoming issue of Broadcasting and Cable magazine about the next wave of VNRs ¾ stand-alone reports. You’ll be watching TV, the show breaks for ads, you’ll see a commercial, then on comes something that looks like a newsbreak, except it isn’t. It’s a VNR tricked out to look like a newscast. Nobody tells you it’s an ad.

Time has come to get mad. Once, we had a regulatory system that insisted broadcast licenses be issued in accordance with the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Once, we had a two-party Republic that included an opposition party. Once, we had media that did what watchdogs customarily do ¾ bark. Sometimes even bite.

No longer. Now it’s time we did our own snarling.

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