The Federal Communications Commission is investigating dozens of television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations as normal, 'real' news.
Fake news segments being examined include items which talked up the illegal Iraq war, and supported the criminals who started it.
The FCC is acting on a report by the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations acted as corporate and government shills, by broadcasting the sneaky propaganda (known in the business as Video News Releases - VNRs) as 'real' news, without informing viewers of its origin.
"We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them," said CMD's Diana Farsetta. "I would say it's pretty extraordinary."
She continued, "The picture we found was much worse than we expected going into the investigation in terms of just how widely these get played and how frequently these pre-packaged segments are put on the air."
One VNR produced by the Bush Administration sneakily suggested to American viewers that Iraqi-Americans were grateful to the White House for starting the war. In it, an Iraqi-American in Kansas City is seen saying "Thank you Bush. Thank you USA" immediately after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. This footage was actually produced by the State Department, hardly an objective source of news.
The ad has to rank as one of the Bush administration's best pieces of propaganda, although there's certainly a long list of contenders. Is it good enough to knock the Saddam statue debacle off its pedestal, so to speak, or perhaps the laughable 'Saving Private Lynch' media event?
Ms. Farsetta said that VNRs have become a viable tool for propaganda uses. "They have got very good at mimicking what a real, independently produced television report would look like," she said.
Some of the corporate 'news' reports included stories by pharmaceutical companies on health issues - which promoted their products - and also a Hallowe'en segment produced by confectionery giant Mars, which featured Snickers, M&Ms and other company brands.
In many cases, the original VNRs were accompanied with information disclosing the production source, which was removed when it was broadcast by the television station. Chuck Molloy of Intel was at pains to make this clear. "We in no way attempt to hide that we are providing the video," he said. "In fact, we bend over backward to make this disclosure."
But that doesn't stop television stations from using the free 'news stories' to pad out their schedule, without passing on the disclosure information. Kate Brookes, who is apparently an ABC reporter in Nevada and Louisiana, a CBS reporter in Texas, and a Fox reporter in Missouri, is actually a publicist for Medialink, the world's largest provider of VNRs. In January, Brookes shot a promotion on the benefits of ethanol, which included all-positive testimony from two industry experts and a corn farmer. Five stations used the material, and introduced Brookes as if she were their reporter.
Craig Aaron of Free Press, another non-profit group that focuses on media policy, condemned the use of VNRs as news. "Essentially it's corporate advertising or propaganda masquerading as news," he said. "The public obviously expects their news reports are going to be based on real reporting and real information. If they are watching an advertisement for a company or a government policy, they need to be told."
The Radio-Television News Directors Association code of ethics states: "Clearly disclose the origin of information, and label all material provided by outsiders." But it seems that, in the interest of either money-savings or government ass-kissing, television stations don't have ethics any longer.
Aaron said that more than 25,000 people had written to the FCC expressing concern about the use of VNRs. The maximum fine for not informing viewers of a VNR broadcast is $32,500.
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