Monday, March 14, 2005
Ready, fire, aim: Sunday's New York Times came out with an article blaring the big headline: "Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News." The headline and the article attempt to perpetuate one of the liberal left's new theories of the world -- that the Bush administration is trying to destroy the media.
[For further evidence on this silliness, see the media's coverage of the Gannon/Guckert nothinggate, and Eric Boehlert's "Tearing down the press: The Bush administration has been at war with the media from Day One. Is its real goal to undermine the press itself -- and thereby eliminate inconvenient truths?"]
[I]t is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.
"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.," a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration's determination to open markets for American farmers.
To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The "reporter" covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department's office of communications.
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.
If you read as far as the 12th paragraph, you come across this little tidbit.
The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration...
But, of course, the Times didn't find this at all worrisome when a Democrat administration was producing these puff pieces. Indeed, there is one fact in the Times piece which can be taken two distinctly different ways.
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.
A recent study by Congressional Democrats offers another rough indicator: the Bush administration spent $254 million in its first term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the last Clinton administration spent.
So, we've got two possibilities. The first is the Bush administration is attempting to influence media coverage to a degree never before seen in American history. The second is that a Republican administration has to spend twice as much money to get a worse shake from the media as a Democrat administration does.
What the Times has really done here is not an indictment of the Bush administration, but of journalism.
It is television stations across the nation that are the ones editing out the attribution of the reports.
Even if agencies do disclose their role, those efforts can easily be undone in a broadcaster's editing room. Some news organizations, for example, simply identify the government's "reporter" as one of their own and then edit out any phrase suggesting the segment was not of their making.
So in a recent segment produced by the Agriculture Department, the agency's narrator ended the report by saying "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Yet AgDay, a syndicated farm news program that is shown on some 160 stations, simply introduced the segment as being by "AgDay's Pat O'Leary." The final sentence was then trimmed to "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting."
Brian Conrady, executive producer of AgDay, defended the changes. "We can clip 'Department of Agriculture' at our choosing," he said. "The material we get from the U.S.D.A., if we choose to air it and how we choose to air it is our choice."
So, what it comes down to is that the Times wants to indict the Bush administration for providing something that, at the very least, television stations want. The Times also points out that with the ever-expanding news programs, the ready-made segments may be something the TV media think they need.
WCIA is a small station with a big job in central Illinois.
Each weekday, WCIA's news department produces a three-hour morning program, a noon broadcast and three evening programs. There are plans to add a 9 p.m. broadcast. The staff, though, has been cut to 37 from 39. "We are doing more with the same," said Jim P. Gee, the news director.
Farming is crucial in Mr. Gee's market, yet with so many demands, he said, "it is hard for us to justify having a reporter just focusing on agriculture."
To fill the gap, WCIA turned to the Agriculture Department, which has assembled one of the most effective public relations operations inside the federal government. The department has a Broadcast Media and Technology Center with an annual budget of $3.2 million that each year produces some 90 "mission messages" for local stations - mostly feature segments about the good works of the Agriculture Department.
"I don't want to use the word 'filler,' per se, but they meet a need we have," Mr. Gee said.
Journalism. Wound. Self-inflicted.