Media Manipulation

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Monday, April 17, 2006

The media is manipulated in all manners, for example through professional public relations (PR), and covert and overt government propaganda which disseminates propaganda as news. What are often deemed as credible news sources can often knowingly or unknowingly be pushing political agendas and propaganda.

Media management and public relations is very professional

The impacts of public relations cannot be underestimated. In the commercial world, marketing and advertising are typically needed to make people aware of products. There are many issues in that area alone (which is looked at in this site’s section on corporate media.) When it comes to propaganda for purposes of war, for example, professional public relations firms can often be involved to help sell a war. In cases where a war is questionable, the PR firms are indirectly contributing to the eventual and therefore unavoidable casualties. Media management may also be used to promote certain political policies and ideologies. Where this is problematic for the citizenry is when media reports on various issues do not attribute their sources properly.

Some techniques used by governments and parties/people with hidden agendas include:

The Gulf War in Iraq, 1991, highlighted a lot of PR work in action. Founder of the Washington PR firm, The Rendon Group, John Rendon told cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996:

“I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician,” Rendon said. “I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” He reminded the Air Force cadets that when victorious troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of the first war in the Persian Gulf, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. The scene, flashed around the world on television screens, sent the message that U.S. Marines were being welcomed in Kuwait as liberating heroes.

“Did you ever stop to wonder,” Rendon asked, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” He paused for effect. “Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs then.”

... Public relations firms often do their work behind the scenes....But his description of himself as a “perception manager” echoes the language of Pentagon planners, who define “perception management” as “actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning. ... In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover, and deception, and psyops [psychological operations].”

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, How To Sell a War, In These Times, 4 August, 2003

Such technical phrases like “truth projection” hide their true meanings and intent: propaganda. One can understand how these have been tactics of war. Churchill used such a technique to fool the Nazis regarding the Normandy landings, for example. Yet, in the Iraq example, PR is turned onto one’s own citizens to convince them to support a war or make it look more glorious and right, than could otherwise have been.

The 2003 war on Iraq saw similar amounts of public relations and media manipulation at work. A detailed account was given by Ahmed Chalabi who seemed to boast how he helped influence major politicians and countries into drumming the beats of war against Iraq. This is discussed in further detail on this site’s Iraq section.

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Smear tactics are increasing in sophistication

Smear tactics are often used to discredit, stain or destroy the reputation of someone. It is unfortunatley common-place and is an age-old technique. It can either involve outright lies, or a distortion of the truth.

With the increasing popularity of the Internet, and search engines such as Google, smearing is taking on additional forms and techniques. Juan Cole, a professor of history has described what he has coined a “GoogleSmear” as a political tactic to discredit him. His personal experience is quoted here:

It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far rightwing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news. Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes). Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information.

Juan Cole, The GoogleSmear as Political Tactic, Informed Comment Blog, March 27, 2005

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Fake News

March 2005 has seen some revelations in the mainstream about fake news whereby organizations and journalists working for public relations firms or a government department have produced news reports. The problem arises where these reports are either presented as factual news by journalists, or have been rebroadcast by news stations without revealing that the segment is from an organization or the government, thus giving it the appearance of genuine news.

David Miller, of Spin Watch, in the UK has noted in a commentary that there is a lot of fake news, and it has been going on for a long time:

This is the age of the fake. We live in an era where the gap between how the world is and how powerful interests try to portray it has grown dramatically wider. Virtually nothing in public debate these days is free of the virus of fakery....

Today distortions [such as the famous Stalinist airbrushing of Trotsky from photographs of the Russian revolutionary period] are much more easily contrived. The advent of the digital camera has made it easier, cheaper and quicker to take and distribute photographs — and to manipulate them. In the last couple of years there have been several examples of photos produced to artificially inflate the size of crowds listening to a speech by George Bush for example. An LA Times journalist was sacked in 2003 for manipulating a photograph of a British soldier in Basra.

The problem with fakes is that the images do not need to be false to mislead. The photos showed by Colin Powell in his presentation to the UN on Iraq were genuine. They just did not show the things that he said they did....

But it is not only photographs which are susceptible to fake treatment. While governments have a long and invidious record, the cutting edge of innovation is in the corporate sector, particularly in the PR industry. Monsanto and other GM interests have been to the forefront of creating fake demonstrations, fake scientific institutes, fake pressure groups with all the paraphernalia of fake leaflets, tee shirts, websites and the rest.…

In recent years the fakes have become more sophisticated, so that the distinction between fake and real is less easy to discern.

David Miller, The age of the fake, Spin Watch, March 14, 2005

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Fake News in the United States

In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that there has been a large amount of fake and prepackaged news created by US government departments, such as the Pentagon, the State Department and others, and disseminated through the mainstream media. The New York Times noted a number of important issues including:

  • The US Bush administration has “aggressively” used public relations to prepackage news. Issues with this have included that:
    • A number of these government-made news segments are made to look like local news (either by the government department or by the receiving broadcaster);
    • Sometimes these reports have fake reporters such as when a “‘reporter’ covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration”;
    • Other times, there is no mention that a video segment is produced by the government;
    • Where there is some attribution, news stations simply rebroadcast them but sometimes without attributing the source.
  • These segments have reached millions;
  • This benefits both the government and the broadcaster;
  • This could amount to propaganda within the United States as well as internationally.

Effectively, American tax payers have paid to be subjected to propaganda disseminated through these massaged messaged.

Citing the New York Times at length:

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. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.

... the administration’s efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations...

Some reports were produced to support the administration’s most cherished policy objectives, like regime change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters... They often feature “interviews” with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy.

Some of the segments were broadcast in some of nation’s largest television markets... prepackaged segments [include] “suggested” lead-ins written by public relations experts. It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of [news programming, feeds, web sites, etc.] only to emerge cleansed on the other side as “independent” journalism.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005 [Emphasis Added]

(This all actually started with the Clinton administration, and has increased tremendously in breadth and scope with the Bush administration. “The Bush administration spent $254 million in its first term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the last Clinton administration spent,” the Time also notes.)

Government Propaganda through Prepackaged News

When some government officials were confronted about this problem by the Times a common response was that they didn’t believe it was propaganda or there was nothing wrong. When it was the case that the news stations didn’t source the segment correctly, this can be understood. But, when the segment itself has been used to pursue ideological or political agendas, then this response is more questionable. Furthermore, the Times also noted, that

the [US] Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda” even if their origin is made clear to the television stations.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005 [Emphasis Added]

When some station news directors were confronted with this,

Their stations, they insisted, would never allow their news programs to be co-opted by segments fed from any outside party, let alone the government.

“They’re inherently one-sided, and they don’t offer the possibility for follow-up questions — or any questions at all,” said Kathy Lehmann Francis, until recently the news director at WDRB, the Fox affiliate in Louisville, Ky.

...

“It amounts to propaganda, doesn’t it?” [Mike Stutz, news director at KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego] said.

...Confronted with evidence [that despite their statements, they had actually broadcast a number of government segments], most news directors were at a loss to explain how the segments made it on the air. Some said they were unable to find archive tapes that would help answer the question. Others promised to look into it, then stopped returning telephone messages. A few removed the segments from their Web sites, promised greater vigilance in the future or pleaded ignorance.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005

In an example, to mark the one year anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks on America, WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis had an uplifting report about Afghanistan and the improving situation for women. The report “seemed to corroborate, however modestly, a central argument of the Bush foreign policy, that forceful American intervention abroad was spreading freedom, improving lives and winning friends.”

Furthermore, what both the people of Memphis and the actual reporter from WHBQ herself were not told was that “interviews used by WHBQ were actually conducted by State Department contractors. The contractors also selected the quotes used from those interviews and shot the video that went with the narration. They also wrote the narration, much of which [the reporter] repeated with only minor changes.”

As another example, the Pentagon offers free satellite feeds. “The Pentagon Channel, available only inside the Defense Department last year, is now being offered to every cable and satellite operator in the United States.” A “good news” and positive image is being portrayed. “50 stories it filed last year were broadcast 236 times in all, reaching 41 million households in the United States.” Reporters, for example, are never identified by their military titles making it easier for local stations to run reports unedited. Few stations acknowledge the military’s role in the segments. Stories are also tailored for local broadcast by highlighting local soldiers to help increase positive feelings.

Much of this sort of thing, the Time noted comes straight from the White House:

The explanation [of the extent to which government-produced news accounts have seeped into the broader new media landscape] begins inside the White House, where the president’s communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11, 2001, to encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism. The idea, they explained to reporters at the time, was to counter charges of American imperialism by generating accounts that emphasized American efforts to liberate and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005

At the end of September 2005, as the New York Times reported, US Federal auditors said on Friday that the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush’s education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party. This was the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities.

In what the Times described as a “blistering report”, the Government Accountability Office confirmed their previous accusation, that the administration had indeed disseminated “covert propaganda” in the United States, in violation of a statutory ban.

Illegal US Domestic Propaganda but Legal International Propaganda?

The above-mentioned strategy by the Bush administration to emphasize positive views of American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq reveals some deeper issues hinted to, but not explored by the Times article:

United States law contains provisions intended to prevent the domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign audiences, but not at home.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005

While further above it was noted that domestic propaganda may be a problem here, so too is the admission that propaganda to foreign audiences is ok.

In the past the US has (rightly) criticized other governments for interfering with democratic processes in other countries (such as warning Russia about interfering in recent Ukraine elections.) Yet, the Voice of America is also disseminating US government views into other countries.

But it is not just Voice of America. USA Today revealed (December 14, 2005) that the Pentagon plans to place pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the US government as the source as part of a $300 million psychological warfare operation. A fear raised now is that people may become more suspicious of the open press.

Widespread Use of Video News Releases By Corporations and Government Agencies

The Center for Media and Democracy published a report noting that pre-packaged Video News Release (VNR) use was widespread, often disguised as news from the broadcasting station:

The quality and integrity of television reporting … significantly impacts the public’s ability to evaluate everything from consumer products to medical services to government policies.

To reach this audience—and to add a veneer of credibility to clients’ messages—the public relations industry uses video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are pre-packaged “news” segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. VNRs are designed to be seamlessly integrated into newscasts, and are freely provided to TV stations. Although the accompanying information sent to TV stations identifies the clients behind the VNRs, nothing in the material for broadcast does. Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they’re watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that “report.”

Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed, A multimedia report on television newsrooms' use of material provided by PR firms on behalf of paying clients, Center for Media and Democracy, April 6, 2006

Key findings from their report were that:

  • VNR use is widespread;
  • VNRs are aired in TV markets of all sizes;
  • TV stations don’t disclose VNRs to viewers;
  • TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting;
  • TV stations don’t supplement VNR footage or verify VNR claims;
  • The vast majority of VNRs are produced for corporate clients;
  • Satellite media tours (interviews with the TV station made to look like a genuine interview) may accompany VNRs.

In sum, television newscasts—the most popular news source in the United States—frequently air VNRs without disclosure to viewers, without conducting their own reporting, and even without fact checking the claims made in the VNRs. VNRs are overwhelmingly produced for corporations, as part of larger public relations campaigns to sell products, burnish their image, or promote policies or actions beneficial to the corporation.

Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed, A multimedia report on television newsrooms' use of material provided by PR firms on behalf of paying clients, Center for Media and Democracy, April 6, 2006

Benefits for Broadcaster

As the Times also noted, “‘Many local stations are expanding their hours of news coverage without adding reporters.’ A video news release company, TVA Productions, said in a sales pitch to potential clients, ‘90 percent of TV newsrooms now rely on video news releases.’”

The pressure and desire to output more with less is increasing. Budgets and staff at news networks are shrinking, while there is continuing demand for news. “Ready-to-run segments” have at least two effects:

  • Broadcasters benefit as they get more reports without additional costs.
  • Propaganda is potentially allowed through, with less checks, and harder traceability as segments are fed through a vast network of broadcasters and redistributers.

The Times also noted that

A definitive accounting is nearly impossible. There is no comprehensive archive of local television news reports, as there is in print journalism, so there is no easy way to determine what has been broadcast, and when and where.

Still, several large agencies, including the Defense Department, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledge expanded efforts to produce news segments. Many members of Mr. Bush’s first-term cabinet appeared in such segments.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News, New York Times, March 13, 2005

In addition, “The State Department typically distributes its segments via satellite to international news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press Television News, which in turn distribute them to the major United States networks, which then transmit them to local affiliates.” In this way, a large audience is reached.

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Fake news in the United Kingdom

Spin Watch and Media Lens reveals that the British media also has fake news.

An investigation revealed for example, that “fake journalists” have been providing news reports to the BBC. “The BBC has been using these reports as if they were genuine news” when in fact some of the journalists were working for an organization “entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence as a propaganda operation.”

The UK is awash with fake news, of which the examples here are only a taste, it is just that we don’t pay much attention to it. The American scandals over fake news are played out against the background of some pretty clear laws forbidding propaganda with a disguised source within the borders of the US. There are no laws forbidding fake news in the UK. Perhaps we needs some.

David Miller, BBC broadcast “fake” news reports , Media Lens, March 15, 2005

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These issues are not new

An interview with John Stauber from prwatch.org notes that issues such as “fake news” have been around for years and the mainstream has hardly ever covered it, until the recent New York Times article:

I was absolutely elated to see The New York Times front page coverage with the inside spread.... In the more than 10 years that I have been investigating and reporting on the widespread use of public relations as news, there’s never, ever been a story like this. This widespread use of fake news, we’re talking thousands of stories a year. This is a billion dollar sub-industry of the P.R. industry has been going on for 20 years, and this is the first mainstream media expose of any length and depth about it.

... There’s so much money to be made or saved, if you will, by replacing real news on TV with fake news, that this will continue to be a widespread problem unless there’s a mobilization of outraged news viewers [for better standards, because] TV news directors and producers' [are] not going to want to give this up. This — we’re talking billions of dollars here in producing these and in airing them instead of going out and producing real news.

... the University of Amherst study ... and there have been other studies that have corroborated this ... that the American public, who watched the most TV coverage of that Gulf War, thought they knew the most, actually knew less than most people who were getting their news through newspapers, for instance, and yet were the strongest supporters of the war. So, the bottom line here is that if you are watching war on television, with all of the propaganda and video news releases that go along with it, you are actually being misinformed, and yet you’re more likely to support the war. Television is the number one source of so-called news for most Americans, and a huge proportion of that is fake news.

State Propaganda: How Government Agencies Produce Hundreds of Pre-Packaged TV Segments the Media Runs as News, Democracy Now! Radio Broadcast, March 14, 2005

And as former CIA agent mentions in an interview, the US has been doing it since the 1950s and 1960s at least:

When I was in the agency from the late 1950s on through to the late 1960s, the agency had operations going internationally, regionally, and nationally, attempting to penetrate and manipulate the institutions of power in countries around the world, and these were things that I did in the CIA—the penetration and manipulation of political parties, trade unions, youth and student movements, intellectual, professional and cultural societies, religious groups and women’s groups and especially of the public information media. We, for example, paid journalists to publish our information as if it were the journalists’ own information. The propaganda operations were continuous. We also spent large amounts of money intervening in elections to favor our candidates over others.

Philip Agee, The Nature of CIA Intervention in Venezuela, Interviewed by Jonah Gindin, Venezuelanalysis.com, March 22, 2005

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More Information

The above only scratches the surface of a deep issue. The following, by no means exhaustive, can provide some additional information as starting points to find out more:

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Where next?

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Wednesday, March 16, 2005
  • Last Updated: Monday, April 17, 2006

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Document Revision History

DateReason
April 17, 2006Added more information about the widespread use of Video News Releases by corporations and US government agencies
December 14, 2005Pentagon plans to plant US-friendly stories around the world without disclosing the source
October 2, 2005US Federal auditors confirm that the Bush Administration violated the law and disseminated covert propaganda.
March 31, 2005The Internet is being used to help improve smear tactics
March 27, 2005More about how recent scandals about US fake news is an old story, as this has happened since the 1950s and 1960s at least.
March 19, 2005As well as scandals in the US about fake news, British media also suffers from similar effects.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.