Jewish World Review March 17, 2005 / 6 Adar II 5765
Fake news makes foul government
Jon Stewart's satirical "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central likes to call itself "No. 1 in fake news." Team Bush seems determined to challenge the show for the title with our tax dollars.
In memos sent last week to federal agency heads, the Bush White House rejected a Government Accountability Office ruling that it is illegal for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged "news stories" that do not disclose the government's role in producing them.
Fake-news stories, called "video news releases" in the public relations industry, are a huge business. The PR trade produces thousands a year, mostly for corporate clients. Designed to resemble independently reported news stories, these video news releases can be broadcast without editing and, to their everlasting shame, some TV stations have chosen to run them without identifying their government source.
All White House administrations use public funds to push their agendas, but they should make a decent effort to inform the public as to where the hype is coming from. Then voters can decide whether they think the money is well spent. But when TV stations put stories on the air without announcing that the stories are government-produced, the stations become megaphones for government propaganda.
Three times in recent months the Government Accountability Office ruled that the made-for-TV stories from the Department of Health and Human Services about the Medicare drug benefit and from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the administration's anti-drug campaign violate federal laws against such covert propaganda. But the Bush administration's latest memos, first reported Sunday by the New York Times, absolve the fake stories where there is "no advocacy of a particular viewpoint" in "the legitimate provision of information" concerning government programs.
Let's get real. In today's politically charged climate, every government announcement reflects a "particular viewpoint," whether it concerns abstinence over condoms, oil drilling over preservation of the Alaska wildlife refuge or whatever.
Fake news came out of HHS under the Clinton administration too. But federal agencies under Clinton were tightwads compared to the Bush administration in regard to the practice. A recent study by congressional Democrats found that the Bush administration spent $254 million in its first term on public relations contracts, almost twice as much as the last Clinton administration spent, according to the Times.
If it was wrong for the Clintonites to send out fake news to local TV stations, it is twice as wrong for Team Bush to spend twice as much as the Clintonites did on the same questionable activity. Leadership in fake news is hardly an honorable title outside of Comedy Central or The Onion, a premier phony-news newspaper.
Unless Congress passes tougher laws, the onus to let the public know what they're watching ultimately lands firmly on the TV stations that broadcast the video news releases.
Just as newspaper reporters should not simply retype public-relations handouts, TV stations should clearly identify a government-produced report for what it is, government propaganda, so we the public can decide how much of it we want to believe.
In that spirit, it is piquantly appropriate that the new memos were revealed during Sunshine Week, which began Sunday. Organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week features coverage and commentary by media across the country on threats to the public's right to know what our government is doing behind closed doors.
In the interest of fairness and balance, I feel obliged to note that even a seemingly inarguable principle such as open government comes under attack in these politically polarized times when it is trumpeted by media organizations.
For example, Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media writes on the conservative watchdog group's Web site that it is hypocritical of media to tout open government while using anonymous sources in many news stories. "I agree that the government has to be held to a higher standard," he writes. "But for the media to come out and say they're going to do it when they've failed so miserably is laughable."
He has a point buried in his broad-brushed statement. Reporters never should be allowed to use anonymous sources to cover sloppy reporting. But government officials also should not use fake news, closed meetings or the secrecy stamp to cover up their own sloppy or destructive governance.
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