2005-03-18 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Getting The Word Out
by Stuart W. Mirsky


I read the New York Times pretty regularly, though I’m finding it harder and harder lately to convince myself I should. The Times is a significant and respectable New York newspaper with national standing and a long history in American journalism. It’s informative, well-edited (most of the time), and generally reliable on the facts. And when it isn’t, it’s usually pretty professional in admitting and correcting its errors. Of course everyone makes errors... we’re only human. But none of us can be purely objective either, and The Times is no exception.

Times editors routinely select and arrange the news stories they carry to highlight what they want us to know and downplay what they don’t. What gets onto their front page, or is otherwise emphasized by them, reflects their world view. The reporters they hire also reflect that view. In this, they are no different than any paper, this one included. Editorial policy necessarily extends well beyond the editorial page. Of course columnists are often an exception, but not a serious one as most (though not all) columnists in the Times, or any paper, also tend to reflect the perspectives of those who own and run that paper. But it’s the news stories which usually tell the tale. This past Sunday’s Times carried an interesting front page piece on a relatively modern phenomenon: video press releases.

UNDER BUSH, A NEW AGE OF PREPACKAGED NEWS HAS TAKEN HOLD blared the headline.

The ensuing article reported that various governmental agencies within the Bush administration have been producing and distributing video releases couched as reportorial coverage of news events. These releases get sent out to local tv stations around the country, says the piece, and are often picked up and run by such stations as news clips to fill air time. Many of the local stations run them unedited or without clear attribution to tell viewers they are not the product of the station’s own critical, independent journalism. Some stations, in fact, appear to have been guilty of deliberately obscuring the governmental sources of this material to make it look like the stuff is their own work.

The Times’ own report is a lengthy piece that begins on page one and occupies a boxed-in area extending over three of six front page newsprint columns, with color photos depicting scenes from four video releases at the top. It goes on to fill one and a half more pages on the inside of the paper, across ten columns of newsprint and roughly 109 paragraphs (no, I didn’t count the words). The Times, of course, is a big paper and its pages aren’t tabloid size so you can be assured, this is a very lengthy article.

The gist of the article is that the Bush administration has been systematically putting out managed news and allowing, facilitating or encouraging local news program editorial staff to treat this material as hard news and give it air time. The video spots are shot like real news reportage, but without anything critical. The interviewees are generally fully aware of what they’re going to be asked. Real reporters are often paid to provide voiceover narratives and conduct the interviews. Many local tv news programs then cut corners, when they run such spots, and allow them to appear as though they are the local programs’ own efforts. The Times piece suggests this plays into the hands of the administration by conveying the impression to local viewers that they are getting hard news when they aren’t.

Oddly, though, you have to read the second page of the Times article before learning, in the 13th paragraph, that this practice “also occurred in the Clinton administration” and it’s not until you hit the 31st paragraph that we read “federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at least the first Clinton administration.” So this practice may even be older than that and is certainly not new with the Bush team. But, the Times article immediately assures us, “under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more...”, though it fails to offer any hard evidence of this.

While acknowledging that “a definitive accounting is nearly impossible,” the Times notes that “several large U.S. agencies... acknowledge expanded efforts...” and reports on a recent study by Congressional Democrats, no less, that claims the Bush administration spent “nearly double” in its first term on public relations contracts over what the Clinton administration had spent. Public relations spending, of course, presumably includes expenditures for the kinds of releases reported on here so, the Times reporters assure us, this is “another rough indicator” that the Bushies are doing more of this kind of stuff.

In fact video releases appear to be the modern equivalent of press releases, a phenomenon readers of this paper should already be quite familiar with. Typically politicians, organizations, government officials and agencies, seeking to draw attention to stories or information they want disseminated, issue print releases to the media. Such releases are usually phrased as news stories to make it easier for their recipients to use them. While many larger newspapers will pick through such releases, using them only for back-up and newsworthy quotes, the smaller papers, lacking the same reportorial manpower, will often run them “as is.” Those who send the releases out love that, of course, because it gives them editorial control over apparent journalistic content. This paper is as guilty as any other local newsweekly in this regard.

The Times report, in fact, does flag a technological shift that has pushed this practice of issuing press releases into the world of television reportage at least since the first Clinton administration. But it does this by suggesting, over 109 sometimes long and repetitive paragraphs, that the Bush administration has somehow engaged in cynical news manipulation on an unprecedented scale, beyond anything done in the Clinton years. For those who oppose the Bush administration, this is music to their ears, of course. It seems to support all the hysterical allegations of government propaganda, interference with the free press, suppression of free speech on the airwaves, etc., that have been bandied about with near abandon by anti-administration ideologues. But what it’s really telling us is something else.

Wading through the piece one comes away with the impression that the administration has been trying to be innovative in getting its message out. This is not surprising in the face of the relentlessly hostile mainstream press that has been nipping at its heels since 2000. But the real question is whether these so-called video releases by the government have crowded out real news and thereby served to alter the message heard by Americans through their news media.

In fact, criticism of the administration in the media has rarely been so vocal or so adversarial as it is today. The tone at administration press conferences is often confrontational and sometimes overtly hostile (think Helen Thomas). The New York Times, among other media organs, hammers at the Bush White House with news stories that accentuate the negative almost daily. Major national news broadcasters have had to terminate producers, and even their newscasters, over questionable reporting aimed at the president in order to salvage their own credibility. Is it any wonder, then, that the administration in Washington may feel compelled to rely on relatively new means for getting its story out? Is the fact that the administration is working vigorously in this way, in the face of a press that often identifies itself with the political opposition, indication of news manipulation?

Well, are all those press releases by our own local politicians, which are often routinely printed verbatim in this newspaper, wrong? Are the politicos who issue them cynically engaged in news manipulation merely because they follow the established practice of writing their own news stories in the knowledge that some local editors will cut corners and run their pieces as “hard news”? In the best of all possible worlds we could all get our messages out without filters or editors eager to put their own spin on events, or to shape the facts to fit their own viewpoints. But that is not this world. Ours is a world of competing interests and, in such a world, we all do our best to be heard. The real measure is whether or not anyone is drowning anyone else out. But by all indications, no one is drowning out those who despise the Bush administration and want to cast it in the worst possible light. Certainly The Times’ voice is as loud and persistent as ever. rockirreg@aol.com

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