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March 13, 2005

A LOT OF PEOPLE are noticing this story from the New York Times about prepackaged fake news from the Bush Administration. But if you read the whole thing, to coin a phrase, you come upon this passing acknowledgement:

The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration, is continuing despite President Bush's recent call for a clearer demarcation between journalism and government publicity efforts.

Funny, but I don't remember much of a stink about it when it happened during the Clinton Administration. However, Peter Morgan and I wrote about the practice in The Appearance of Impropriety and you can read a slightly-different version online here:

Those who followed the uproar of Senator Bidenís speech, or for that matter the more recent flap over Joe Kleinís false denial of authorship with regard to the novel Primary Colors, might have been surprised to know how little of the content in their daily newspaper or newscast actually originated with the producers and editors.

News stories, to a degree seldom appreciated by the general public, are often the product of press releases generated by trade associations and interest groups. Often those releases are converted into news stories by the simple expedient of placing a reporter's byline on top. Television news stories (especially those appearing on local stations) are often supplied fully produced, with blank spots left for the local news reporter to insert commentary that makes the story appear his or her own. Opinion columns are often "placed" by businesses or interest groups to support a particular point of view -- often, they are even written by those groups and then run with the byline of distinguished individuals, or even regular commentators, who have barely read the piece, much less written it. Indeed, the Sasso "attack video" was something of this sort, for the journalists who broke the Biden/Kinnock story did not at first disclose their source.

Most readers and viewers have small appreciation of how little of what they see on television or read in newspapers and magazines is original with the reporters, editors, and producers involved. Yet in fact news organizations are highly dependent on predigested information from public relations firms, government officials, and advocacy groups, information that is often passed on to their readers and viewers with no indication that it is not original. That problem is not new, but it has gotten worse in recent years. . . .

Although a "video news release" is still more expensive to produce than a standard paper press release, they have become much more common. According to a recent poll, seventy-five percent of TV news directors reported using video news releases at least once per day.

These releases, with their high quality images and slick production, are produced by companies and groups who want to get their message across, but don't want simply to purchase advertising time. They are designed so that television producers at local stations or (less often) major networks, can simply intersperse shots of their own reporters or anchors (often reading scripted lines provided with the release) to give the impression that the story is their own. Their use has been the subject of considerable controversy within the journalistic profession, although some commentators have claimed that they are used no more often, or misleadingly, than written press releases are used by the print media.

A recent scandal in Britain involved network use of a video news release produced by the group Greenpeace that some considered misleading. But of course for every video news release, or VNR as they are called in the trade, that comes from an environmental group there are hundreds that come from businesses or government organizations. Though a keen eye can usually spot a VNR (hint: the subject matter wouldn't otherwise be news, and it usually involves experts and locales far from the station that airs it) most viewers probably believe that todayís story on cell-phone safety or miracle bras is just another product of the news program's producers Ė and hence, implicitly backed by the news peopleís public commitment to objective journalism. The truth, however, is different.

It is fair to say that the wholesale use of others' work is a major part of modern journalism. But news officials are quick to distinguish that from plagiarism. In a mini-scandal at the San Diego Tribune, a reporter's story was cancelled when editors noticed that it looked very much like a story that had already appeared elsewhere. At first, presumably, it was thought that the story had been taken from the other publication. Then it turned out that both stories were simply near-verbatim versions of a press release. According to the Tribune's deputy editor, that wasn't plagiarism. "If you look up the definition of plagiarism, it is the unauthorized use of someone's material. When someone sends you a press packet, you're entitled to use everything in there."

Follow the link, if you want more, including a quote from Daniel Boorstin demonstrating that fake news goes back a long way. Suddenly, however, it's controversial. Perhaps if "real" news were, well, better, it would be harder to pass off the fake stuff . . . .

UPDATE: Here's an earlier column of mine on this phenomenon, in the non-profit context.