Mar 1 2006

Sidebar: Prepackaged News

Straight From the Source, No Journalism Required

[Note: this piece is a sidebar to “Fear & Favor 2005—FAIR’s Sixth Annual Report.”]

At the beginning of the year, the Armstrong Williams scandal highlighted the disturbing practice of the Bush administration’s using taxpayer dollars to fund media that uncritically promote government policies and programs, without disclosing the source of the funding to readers or viewers. (Journalist Williams was revealed to have received some $240,000 from the White House to promote George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.) But no scandal arose just a short while later, when an inspector general’s report found that the Williams deal was just a small part of a pattern of such deals at the Education Department, with some $4.7 million handed out to secretly promote Bush administration policies.

Perhaps that explains why, far from being eliminated by Williams’ exposure, the practice appears to be thriving.

As many as 18 California TV stations aired parts of what looked like a news report but was, in fact, a video press release produced by the state to promote a controversial change in labor laws (L.A. Times, 2/28/05). The tape, narrated by a former TV reporter who is now a state employee, extols a proposal to change a rule about lunch breaks for hourly workers. The change is opposed by organized labor, but the tape features no dissenting views, only endorsements. These include one from a restaurant owner (who, viewers are not told, is currently involved in a lawsuit over the rule in question and was a donor to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign) and another from the deputy secretary of the state agency that is overseeing hearings on the proposed change (leading Democrats to charge that those hearings amount to a kangaroo court). “I don’t see it as propaganda,” explained the official, though Schwarzenegger’s office had less trouble with that definition: It’s “just like any other press release, only it’s on video,” explained the governor’s communications director, Rob Stutzman.

The 6:30 news slot on Portland, Oregon’s KOIN-TV on December 25 featured a “presentation” on Portland’s progress in cleaning up the polluted Willamette River. Another word for it would be “propaganda,” given that the program, introduced by a KOIN news anchor and narrated by Walter Cronkite, was produced for the station free of charge by the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services (Columbia Journalism Review, 3-4/05). Issues like the EPA’s criticisms of the Willamette River Project were nowhere to be found. KOIN might say that there was no intention to confuse viewers about the program’s official source, but that wouldn’t explain the subsequent repackaged version of the video (also produced at state expense) that allowed the station to add their “KOIN News 6” logo to every frame.

Though the advantages of prepackaged news are evident—it costs little or nothing, and it pleases powerful newsmakers—apparently those enticements are not enough to make some journalists sacrifice their professional integrity. That may be why one PR outfit has sweetened the pot—offering newspaper and radio editors game show-like prizes, including refrigerators and gas grills, for using their material. NewsUSA Inc. produces audio clips, newspaper copy and radio scripts on behalf of paying clients including corporations and associations (Washington Post, 12/12/05). In exchange for using these items to fill their pages or airtime, news professionals can enroll in the “Editor Rewards Program” and earn “points” toward products in the company’s “prize catalog.” Journalism awards, presumably, are not among the goodies on offer.