Propaganda and advertising

by John Quiggin on March 13, 2005

This NYT report shows how the Bush Administration has been producing covert propaganda, which is then shown on US TV stations as news, with actors posing as reporters. It would take much more than this to surprise me in relation to the Bush Administration, and in any case, the practice apparently began under Clinton.

What did strike me was that, while the NYT went in for plenty of handwringing about the government manipulating the news, the report showed no concern about the fact (news to me) that corporations have been doing this for years, more or less openly, to the extent that those involved in producing “video news releases” have their own association, annual awards and so on

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance.
Of course, reprinting press releases with minimal editing has been a standby of lazy journalists for decades. But the standard press release story opens with what is presented as a paraphrase of a quote “In Washington today, Senator X criticised the neglect of problem Y …” or whatever. Even if the reader is led to imagine that the statement was actually made to an audience of reporters, there’s no serious deception, though a well-designed press release can certainly ensure that the writer’s key points get prominently reported in a way that makes them seem like fact rather than opinion.

But the video news release goes way beyond this. The closest analog in the print world is those supplements, designed to look like news, with “advertisement” in small print at the bottom of the page.

I don’t know anything about the legality of all this. Here in Australia, radio commentators got into a heap of strife over “cash for comment”, accepting money from corporations to say nice things about them. But this was advertising presented as opinion. Presenting advertising as news seems far worse to me.

The issue of paid-for or sponsored political comment has already arisen in relation to blogging. It seems unlikely that commercial PR can be far behind, if it isn’t here already.

{ 17 comments }

1

Young Irelander 03.13.05 at 8:46 pm

That is absolutely outrageous.Such tactics don’t belong in the 21st century.If Tony Blair tried to pull a stunt like that he’d be lynched!

2

belle waring 03.13.05 at 9:11 pm

I also loved the bland innocence with which the gov’t spokespeople denied having any control over what the stations did. “it’s not our fault if the stations air these pieces in a misleading way…” as if there could be any other conceivable purpose for a fake news report. what, they though people would play them at parties or something?

3

Jackmormon 03.13.05 at 9:52 pm

I agree with your general point that news-reporting has long been compromised by commercial packaging, and yes, this practice has long been scandalous. But reporting on the intensified political packaging going on now requires a specific focus.
To go into the fact that packaging like this has long been common, and that the Bush admin and the Republican party are simply using corporate tactics for political ends would dilute the article’s argument. It would become a Monde-Diplomatique article rather than a NYT article.
As unsurprising as the content of the NYT article is, I was glad to see it appear at all.

4

Glenn Condell 03.14.05 at 2:10 am

‘As unsurprising as the content of the NYT article is, I was glad to see it appear at all.’
Hear hear. The NYT still has a long way to go just to approach the foothills of it’s former glory, but that is a start. Now if they could just give Judith Miller some of Jayson Blair’s medicine…
The admin chicanery and media connivance though is only one half of the equation; the other is a market full of credulous fools silly enough to swallow it.

5

Robert 03.14.05 at 4:05 am

The propaganda machine has been out of control in the United States for some time now. As you point out, the NYTimes article only scratches the surface. What I’m wondering is what can be done to put the breaks on this kind of practice? If unscrupulous reporters like Armstrong Williams are a problem, unscrupulous government agencies and corporations that elude responsibliity are an even bigger problem.
Seriously, though, what can be done?

6

RS 03.14.05 at 6:38 am

Jesus, how can this be true? Anyone know how widespread this practice is outside the US?

7

abb1 03.14.05 at 7:46 am

The more propaganda the better, at this point.
You just read newspapers and watch TV and assume the opposite of anything they print and say, like most people do in any state where the government controls media.
It’s only a problem when there is a significant amount of truth in reporting – then you get confused. But as the proportion of the truthful bits becomes smaller and smaller, it makes the media more straightforward, easier to consume.

8

jet 03.14.05 at 7:55 am

Good for the NYT’s for reporting on this. Too bad it took a Republican President and a Republican issue for them to decide to cover this issue. But you have to wonder why this was brought up here and now as this isn’t a new practice, as anyone familiar with Clinton’s scandals would know. I’d feel like Bush was a bad boy if he wasn’t just playing by the rules, but as no one cried about Clinton’s professional actors pimping socialized medicine until after he was out of office. I’ll cry about Bush’s Social Security actors when he’s out of office.
Thanks, NYT’s for cherry-picking Republican issues you want to display some ethics about and thus adding evidence to your complete lack of those ethics.

9

winna 03.14.05 at 8:37 am

The difference between Clinton’s pieces and the current administration’s pieces is that the pieces produced under Clinton were labelled as being produced by the government.
That’s what makes these puff pieces more serious- there is no indication where they come from.

10

Patrick 03.14.05 at 9:11 am

If you can’t see through the bull shoveled on you every day, you deserve your outrage and conspiracy theories. Caveat emptor.

11

kharris 03.14.05 at 12:29 pm

“Of course, reprinting press releases with minimal editing has been a standby of lazy journalists for decades.”
You mean like this?
“WASHINGTON, March 14 (Reuters) – Dina Powell, an American of Egyptian descent who speaks fluent Arabic, will be named to a top State Department public diplomacy job on Monday as the White House seeks to improve its image in the Arab world, U.S. officials said…Powell…will serve as deputy to Karen Hughes, a long-time confidante to President George W. Bush who was to be officially tapped for under secretary of state for public diplomacy at the same State Department ceremony on Monday…The choices of one of Bush’s closest advisers and of an Arabic speaker ILLUSTRATE THE EMPHASIS THE WHITE HOUSE ATTACHES TO TRYING TO IMPROVE THE WAY ARABS VIEW THE UNITED STATES, long seen by Arabs as favoring Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and resented for supporting repressive Arab regimes.” (EMPHASIS ADDED — I DID THE CAPS.)
For all the world, improving the way Arabs view the US would have been my last guess, but Reuters has set me straight.

12

fjm 03.14.05 at 1:06 pm

Mark Twain would be amused. If it’s on the tv it must be true.

13

Nanette 03.14.05 at 2:26 pm

There was a brief (very brief!) flap a couple of years ago when it was revealed that some of the celebrity guests appearing on the morning news shows, and on cable, to talk about their personal struggles were in fact paid representatives of various drug companies. There was no disclosure of this on the shows though, of course.
Here is one mirrored NYTimes story on this from 2002 about
CNN’s agreement to disclose corporate relationships. Don’t know if they’ve lived up to it.
Anyway, I think it’s probably a lot more widespread, and a lot more hidden, than we think.

14

George 03.14.05 at 6:23 pm

For once I agree with abb1. File this together with Gannon/Guckert, RatherGate, the Daily Show, Jayson Blair, the absurd bias of most cable and talk radio and the wretchedness of even legit local TV news. Different cases all, I know, but in aggregate the message is clear: assume everything is false.

15

Jackmormon 03.14.05 at 10:57 pm

It’s all very well to say that this has been going on for ages and that we the enlightened blog-readers know better and we are now the news-consumer-overlords and nyah-nyah-nyah. Most of the voters in this country don’t read blogs. Most of the voters in this country assume that if serious violations of this country’s policies against propaganda were discovered, someone would do something about it. Yes, we’re all too-cool-for-school and all that, but propaganda, you know, matters. To blithely assert otherwise is bloggy triumphalism of the most insidious sort.

16

abb1 03.15.05 at 6:11 am

Yes, George, in the old days smart people used to be able to read a frontpage of the PRAVDA and deduce what’s going on inside the USSR government and in the world, and they could do it with amazing accuracy; even though the text they were processing had no single word of truth in it.
As long as it’s consistent and you understand the mechanics – the information is there. It’s only a cacophony, white noise that’s frustrating. Fortunately, there’s less and less of that.

17

Russell Arben Fox 03.15.05 at 1:47 pm

Excellent thoughts, John–though I wonder if advertising isn’t exactly the wrong model to employ to get a handle on this. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get sucked into a discussion as to whether or not such subtle propaganda is diluting the media’s ability to impartially examine the government’s wares; partiality aside, the problem is preserving the bright line between those “producing” the government’s “product” and those responsible for examining such. (More here.)

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