Tuesday, March 23, 2004

News you can abuse: fun with The New York Times

Mark Dorroh

There are all kinds of ways news can be abused. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes not. Reporters and editors try to keep media manipulation and mistakes to a minimum and their professional objectivity to a maximum, but it's a constant battle.

According to some New York media wallas, the latest examples of intentional media manipulation by powerful interests are the "video news releases" sent to television news departments by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The New York Times, which broke the story, claims that the videos look and sound like news stories prepared by reporters and editors, but they're actually informational puff pieces touting the Medicare drug benefit bill enacted last year while simultaneously explaining to senior citizens how to use it. In one "video news release," actors pretending to be reporters give President Bush a standing ovation. In another, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson stresses the voluntary nature of the program.

But the "reporter" who filed the stories and did the stand-up announcing job in front of the cameras is an actress, not a reporter. She didn't work for a broadcast news department and the script she read was prepared by a public information officer of the Department of HHS. Was this an attempt to fool news departments?

By way of explanation, I should stipulate that I spent most of a dozen years as a radio news director, and in my opinion, any editor who couldn't tell these were puff pieces should be fired, yesterday.

Such packages land on the desks of news directors every day, sent over the transom by the government, from unscrupulous companies trying to get free advertising and from advocacy groups who will tart up a position statement and present it as a news release.

Any news professional who was not asleep at the switch would find it pretty hard to mistake these puff pieces for anything but what they are. Only a terminally stupid or extremely lazy editor could confuse them with unbiased news reports.

Back in the '90s, when I was running the WHAP news department in Hopewell, Virginia, I saw this stuff all the time. If it had an interesting slant, I'd put it into a newscast, making sure to identify the source so the listener could decide on the credibility of the story for himself. I knew the "reporters" were really public information officers, paid flaks, so I would just edit out their voices, rewrite the scripts for our staff to announce, and use only the tape "actuality" of whoever was the subject of the report or the supposedly expert commentator on the subject. Then, if it was a controversial enough issue, I'd call up someone on the other side for a comment, just for balance.

From what I've read, the video news releases for the Medicare drug benefit were essentially government-created versions of this sort of faux news release. A smart editor who wanted to use the story would have simply called up one of the Medicare drug benefit bill's many opponents and gotten the other side of the story, which is what I suspect most editors did.

An HHS spokesman points out that such video news packages are sent out regularly for public information purposes, but the Times piece claims the packages were not labeled to identify them as government agency handouts. The paper contends that omission could possibly have led some to believe they were actual, unbiased news reports. So now there's an investigation over whether or not a federal law was broken. Apparently there's a rule in federal code against the government paying for propaganda ... that is, propaganda not approved by Congress.

The flap over whether or not the video news releases were aimed at fooling anyone is a tempest in a teapot; it's news you can abuse.


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