Sunday, May 04, 2008

Fake News

I used to be a lot more certain about things when I was younger. Take the article I read in McPaper the other day. Apparently the Pentagon has set up a foreign language network of “news” websites. The latest one is for Iraqis, but there are also sites for people from the Balkan states
as well as North Africans. The Pentagon says these websites are a way to combat insurgent messages and get the “truth” out about U.S. interests.

Some journalists decry these sites as deceptive propaganda designed to manage and control information. They are particularly bothered by the fact that these websites appear to be objective and it’s only by clicking on “About this Site” that you find out they are sponsored by the Pentagon. “There’s a heavy responsibility to let people know where you’re coming from,” says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As a former broadcast journalist, I agree. In fact, when I was working in the media I believed that ONLY the fourth estate had the right to disseminate news and information. Any one or any thing else was clearly tainted by the interests of the writer or the organization behind it.

Well, things have changed.

My idealistic balloon was first punctured about twenty years ago when I quit journalism for PR. I was shocked to find out that TV stations actually ran stories produced by corporations. Back then, they were called “video news clips”, and, yes, as a former TV producer, I wrote and produced some. I rationalized it by saying – and believing – that there are usually two sides of a story, and that each side had the right to get their story out. I probably also rationalized it with the belief that the content of the VNRs I worked on were relatively benign: a medical procedure that uses new technology… or a new drug that fights rheumatoid arthritis. Still, I had the nagging suspicion that I was unwittingly contributing to something a bit nefarious, because back then, VNRs were indistinguishable from “real news.” There were no markers or other IDs that labeled the stories as paid programming.

Fast forward 20 years.

We have learned that conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams was paid by the Administration to talk up “No Child Left Behind.” Liberal MSNBC broadcasters Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann don't even pretend to be objective. Neither does conservative Bill O’Reilly, despite his new-found love for Hillary. Or NY Times columnist Frank Rich. Everyone dishes information filtered by their own agendas. At the same time so many VNRs fill the airwaves (in an effort to stem declining profitability of TV news operations) that there have been calls to standardize the practice.

Sad, isn’t it? News has been adulterated. Commercialized. Politicized. And I’ve been a party to it.

For a while, I thought the internet would resolve the problem. Because anyone can say anything at any time, I assumed the result would be a purer grass roots form of communication. The First Amendment would flourish. But how many of you really read all the comments on Politco? Or CNN? Do they really add to the national conversation?

Even more worrisome is the specter of commercial control, as the biggies in the communications industry try to persuade Congress to let them control the pipeline that brings us our information, such as it is.

Ultimately, given that Islamic fundamentalists, racists of all stripes, and just plain nutcases can launch their own websites, is the Pentagon’s attempt to put out their own version of the truth any less worthy? After all, propaganda is nothing new -- the Voice of America has been around for decades. Isn’t this simply a print version of the same thing?

The bottom line is that I’ve come to accept that any news I get has been filtered or paid for by someone else. Everyone has an ax to grind, and more are sharpening theirs as I write this. Hell, even writing crime fiction says something about the way we look at the world.

So, I‘m not nearly as certain about my principles as I used to be. I'm not sure where to draw the line.

What about you? What do you think?


JD Rhoades said...

I get all my news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Sara Paretsky said...

I used to get my news from Doonesbury, but he's on leave--and that's part of current situation. We love zingers instead of news. The VNR is terrifying in these days because the cost is so high for the results of people believing it--the admin is trying to pitch us into attacking Iran the same way it did with Iraq. Every time I read the morning paper and see more allegations of Iranian training of terrorists I think, is it true, and if it is, does it really help us to widen this already disastrous war, and finally, are the people who make the decisions so out of t ouch with the consequences of what they do that they'll plunge us deeper into ruinous war without thought?

Doug Riddle said...

If you really want the crap scared out of you about how easily the internet as a news/information source can be manipulated....check out Baldacci's The Whole Truth. It is a very scary world out there, and getting harder to tell the fiction from the facts.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Henry Ford said, "History is more or less bunk," and I presume he meant everything is seen through the eyes of fallible people. I have never read a report of an event I was involved in that wasn't at least partly wrong. I like Olberman because he's honest about his point of view.

Question everything.

BV Lawson said...

Sooner or later, it all boils down to education, but today's schools aren't teaching kids to reason or to question, merely how to take tests. How can we expect people to have the wherewithal to even know they shouldn't take everything they hear at face value, when they haven't been taught those skills? Sites like were established for just such a reason. It's sad that they're needed.

Picks By Pat said...

For this reason, I try to read at least two newspapers every day. My favorites are the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, both excellent, but each has a different perspective (obviously).
Radio? NPR, hands down.

I expect a little bias no matter where I get my news, so when I see a story that really interests me, I try to read it from two different sources. I guess I learned critical thinking in school...those were the days!

Anonymous said...

I'm a total skeptic when it comes to the news. We either hear too little accuracy or too many assumptions. I'm not sure it's ever been different. We grew up reading the Trib and the Times and got different news coverage from each. Champaign has one paper of record, the Gazette, run by the town conservatives. To get any other views, we need to find the Daily Illini, which tends to be totally liberal. Frankly, no matter how the news is presented, there will always be that little bit of personal agenda that colors the actual facts.

Decor Interiors said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Decor Interiors said...

Hey BV Lawson, schools teach to the test because when test scores are not where the parents believe they should be they complain the teachers suck. You cite sites like were established because analytical skills were not taught. I say get off the internet and engage your children, no education system is worth a crap without active parents, that's the secret behind the Asian and Indian children's success. I am not in education but have family members who are and while there are of course bad teachers, parents need to take responsibility for raising good citizens too. Too often, in the USA it does not happen though, mom and dad are too busy with their own careers to pay the mortgage for the McMansion.And yes I understand this could not possibly apply to all parents.There are many very good parents out there doing their best.