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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.
This web page has the following sub-sections:
- Media management and public relations is very professional
- Smear tactics are increasing in sophistication
- Fake News
- Fake News in the United States
- Fake news in the United Kingdom
- These issues are not new
- More Information
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 media1.) 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:
- Paying journalists to promote certain issues2 without the journalist acknowledging this, or without the media mentioning the sources;
- Governments and individuals contracting PR firms to sell a war3, or other important issues
- Disinformation or partial information reported as news or fact without attributing sources that might be questionable
- PR firms feeding stories to the press4 without revealing the nature of the information with the intention of creating a public opinion (for example, to support a war, as the previous link highlights where even human rights groups fell for some of the disinformation, thus creating an even more effective propaganda campaign)
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 War5, 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 section6.
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 12, 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 13, 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 14, 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 15, New York Times, March 13, 2005
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 17, 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.
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 21, 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.
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 23, Democracy Now! Radio Broadcast, March 14, 2005
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:
- Full article: Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News 25, New York Times, March 13, 2005
- The mole, the US media and a White House coup26, The Observer, February 20, 2005
- PR Watch27, published by the Center for Media and Democracy
- The White House Fakes It28, Alternet, March 14, 2005
- Stop Fake News29 campaign site
- Media Channel30 looks into media issues in general
- Administration Rejects Ruling on PR Videos 31, Washington Post, March 15, 2005, Page A21. This article is about how the GOP claiming fake news from the government amounts to propaganda, and how the Bush administration rejects that.
- From FreePress, a campaign to stop news fraud:
- Spin Watch34 researches and reports on corporate and government public relations and propaganda.
(Note that listed here are only those hyperlinks to other articles from other web sites or elsewhere on this web site. Other sources such as journal, books and magazines, are mentioned above in the original text. Please also note that links to external sites are beyond my control. They might become unavailable temporarily or permanently since you read this, depending on the policies of those sites, which I cannot unfortunately do anything about.)
- Justin Raimondo, 'Payola Pundits for War?', Antiwar.com, January 28, 2005, http://www.antiwar.com/justin/?articleid=4628
- Jane Mayer, 'The Manipulator', The New Yorker, May 29, 2004, http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040607fa_fact1
- 'How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf', Toxic Sludge, Chapter 10 Excerpts, 1995 , http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy10.html
- Robert Pear, 'Buying of News by Bush’s Aides Is Ruled Illegal', October 1, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/01/politics/01educ.html