Sunday, March 13, 2005

Michael: Federal Agencies Making Propaganda with your money

The U.S. government has made and distributed hundreds of Video News Releases (VNRs) over the past four years, distributing them openly to news agencies who then often use the footage and commentary unattributed in their news coverage. There isn't necessarily any deception intended by the agencies involved (they don't hide the origin of their VNRs), but the viewer will seldom know that the footage came from the government and may have a political slant.

It isn't really surprising that VNRs have become so widespread in government. They are widespread in every other publicity field. However, we would be scandalized if a political campaign were releasing VNRs and news stations were carrying them without any contextualization or attribution. One of the main objectives of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms was to get politicians to be more clearly responsible for their own propaganda. Surely the purpose of making sure the public understands the real source of political information doesn't end just because that politician got elected? Who could have a problem with ensuring that all government publications are clearly and unambiguously labeled as such?

Transparency demands that VNRs be identified as to their source and their funding, just as a VNR from a political campaign must be. It is important that government sources are clearly identified, because journalists are less likely to approach 'government sources' from a critical viewpoint. When a political candidate hands a journalist a tape, there is a clear agenda that the journalist will question; when a government bureaucrat hands that journalist a tape, there isn't the same skepticism. The public deserves to know who is speaking when they see such 'news' footage.

Unfortunately, we currently have an Administration who sees itself as locked in an information war with the press and with the American public. Propaganda and public information functions have been merged in Iraq, and now we have seen instances of the same being done in administrative agencies and the target of their information campaigns is us. This covert propagandizement of the public via tax-payer funded VNRs in support of 'official' policy is just one half of struggle to achieve information superiority in the war for the public's minds. The other half is the increasing secrecy of the government upon the thinnest of pretexts.

But these underhanded techniques are by no means limited to the Bush Administration. In California, the Schwarzenegger Administration (I still feel like I'm writing satire when I type that) put out a series of VNRs promoting its policies that ended up in news stories without attribution. Likely, more examples of this use of tax-payer money to promote a political agenda covertly will be uncovered in the near future.

Local news stations are just too lazy and budget conscious to pass up high-quality free footage. There is no way that voluntary journalistic restraint is going to cure this problem. We need a ban on using tax revenues to push political agendas disguised as news, or at least require a BICRA-style attribution as to the source of VNRs. Perhaps a float of the agency and authorizing official's name in the corner, like a standard television branding badge, would be a way to assure attribution. I trust the public to make up its mind if they have all the information, but it seems unfair to allow executive officeholders to turn their bully-pulpits into news studios and covertly propagandize the public via 'independent' news sources.

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