Sunday, March 13, 2005

Benefits For All?

Just enough time for a short post this morning.
The New York Times today offers a long, fascinating expose on the federal government's use of pre-packaged public relations spots masquerading as news. "Video news releases" they're called, and many of us have read about them in recent weeks. The Bush administration spent $254 million of taxpayer money during its first term on these pieces, which often are aired without any indication that they are government releases rather than independent journalism.
It's a well-done article, thorough and fair, but there was a passage early on that bothered me. In discussing the distribution of canned "news" reports on administration initiatives, the authors write:

"It is also a world where all participants benefit.
"Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material.
Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars.
The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the
government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The
administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the
guise of traditional reporting."

What troubles me about that?
The exclusion of the audience from the list of "all participants." Now maybe that's fair enough by the author's definition. The audience might be considered a "recipient" rather than a "participant" of these faux news reports. But it seems to me that that's a dimunition of the role of journalism in society, particularly troubling when the source is the most highly esteemed daily newspaper in the United States.
Journalism should play a vital role in the education of the public, and in order for that to happen, readers and viewers must be considered full participants in the enterprise.
What's missing from this locution is the sense that journalism is a responsibility, a public trust. And the omission of the public as a participant in the passage above suggests that that sense of responsibility is disappearing from even our most trusted media sources.
I do not want to suggest that the troubling passage cited above is anything more than a poorly expressed thought in an otherwise admirable piece. That happens, and given the general tone of the piece, I suspect that the authors might be willing to rethink that phrasing.
The point of their story, of course, is that the public does not benefit from propoganda disguised as reporting.
I am a strong believer in advocacy journalism, but I believe it should always be branded as such. The consequences of not doing so are, in the extreme, the recycling of press releases as practiced by "Jeff Gannon" at the now-defunct Talon News Service, or more insidiously, in the disguised advocacy labeled as "fair and balanced" by Fox News.
This is probably the passage we should be most concerned about:

"And on Friday, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and
Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to
ignore the G.A.O. findings."

This is a nose-thumbing directed at a finding by the Government Accountability Office that federal agencies are not permitted to produce pre-packaged reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials."
Bottom line: The George W. Bush administration feels free to ignore its own watchdogs
Managers of several news outlets cited in the Times report either pleaded ignorance or denied using canned segments in the face of evidence that they had done so. Some stopped returning the reporters' calls when their misdeeds were pointed out to them.
Journalists have to make decisions every day about what is news and what is not. Clearly there is always judgment at work. Time pressures and resource constraints may contribute to the decision to air a received video rather than producing an original report. But the lazy decision to air packaged press releases as news reports is not the kind of judgment that can be justified under any circumstances.
Yes, the viewing and reading public participates in the news. They use the information they receive to make decisions at the polling place and in the conduct of their personal lives. Public respect for journalism has plummeted in recent years, partly due to charges of masked advocacy (our liberal media, anyone?). Newspapers as well as radio and television stations are now operated as major corporations, and act to protect their own business interests.
The policies of the Bush administration in limiting access to real information and masking public relations efforts as news may have played a role in diminishing respect for journalism, but it really is the judgments of the journalists themselves and the corporate interests they represent who are leading to the demise of impartial journalism as we have known it for the last 100 years. When the Michael Jackson trial and Martha Stewart's prison release are considered more newsworthy than the U.S. budget deficit, government disregard for civil liberties and promotion of torture, we have corporate America coupled with journalistic laziness to thank.
I know that journalists often say that they highlight stories that people are interested in, and that that is why we have so much focus on trivial celebrity news. What is not said is that many people -- those with limited time for the news -- simply don't know that other things are happening about which they might care. Difficult stories are not only not being fully explained, they're not even being told.
The notion of an independent "fourth estate" has been relegated to the Internet where scrappy, determined individuals (see links at left) continue to uncover misdeeds, inconsistencies and consequential stories that have been ignored by the mainstream media. They're mostly advocates, but they're also mostly honest about their points of view and agendas.