Fake News Is No Joke


By all means, lets support the campaign against "fake news" on TV. That's a reference to the undisclosed use by local news outlets of PR company-produced ads dressed up to look like news. A study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that 35 commercially driven news packages had been inserted in or run adjacent to 77 newscasts without attribution.

The practice involves Video News Releases, and it is wrong and it should be stopped. It's a form of disguised commercial posing as news story. It's deceptive, and probably violates FCC regulations.

But let's not stop there.

Fraudulent advertising is all over TV. All those ads urging us to "tell your" doctor to prescribe colorfully packaged pills, all those weight loss claims and phony credit card and debt consolidation spots. And then there is paid product placement in dramatic programming, and probably soon in the news.

In fact, how many advertisements could survive real truth tests? Most political ads fail, and I would guess that many commercial ads do as well.

We are even getting ads from people who are DEAD! Eonline.com carried a story on a "very important message" from Chris Farley -- from beyond the grave:

"Eight years after his fatal overdose, the late Saturday Night Live funnyman has been resurrected for a series of billboard advertisements plugging a new treatment for drug and alcohol abuse from Hythiam Inc."
Even worse, there are three times as many opinionizers on the air than journalists. PR firms pitch them guests and issues. Together, they insidiously dominate the public discourse often shaping the news agenda. All too often this accepted practice is not considered "fake news."

Faking it

Evan Derkacz of AlterNet reported on this latest media scandal this way in PEEK:
"They've been faking it.
"Clear Channel, News Corp./Fox Television, Viacom/CBS Corp., Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcast Group, among others, have all aired Video News Releases (VNR), corporate-sponsored ads masquerading as news, according a report from the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Free Press.
"I feel so cheated, so used, so so so … betrayed. According to Tim Karr nearly half of the American public is reached by the stations implicated in the report and:
'Despite repeated claims from broadcasters that they do not air VNRs as news, the new report reveals just the tip of the iceberg. Instances of fake TV news documented by CMD likely represent less than 1 percent of VNRs distributed to local newsrooms since June 2005. Fraudulent news reports have likely been aired on hundreds of more local newscasts in the past year.'"
OK, wait a minute, this is bad, but is it the worst problem we have to contend with on TV news? No way. It's not the occasional concealed ads posing as news that we should worry about, but the deceptive information and usual drivel we see day after day and night after night that calls itself news.

Getting at the more serious problem

Shouldn't this campaign broaden its focus?

Some years back a group called Rocky Mountain Media Watch led by the late Paul Klite monitored local news. They studied what was on, and what wasn't. They looked at 41 cities during elections and found more ads than reporting. They looked at their hometown and found the city of Denver was being bombarded with news shows that were mostly missing one key ingredient: news itself.

That's right, they found a pervasive pattern of no-news local news shows.

They took the stations to court. Their claim: false advertisng! They documented the lack of news in the news. They asked: So how can they call this pabulum news? Call it what it is.

The court, in its wisdom, threw the case out on First Amendment grounds. They ruled you can't interfere with what media companies define as news. That defended the status quo in the name of freedom of the press, when more precisely, it was only freedom for those who own the press.

The media activists who brought the case may have lost in the law courts, but they won in the court of public opinion. Trust in local news took a dive in credibility.

Owning TV stations are licenses (which cost nothing for the corporations) to make money. News is a profit center in most local markets. (TV execs don't refer to serving their communities but their markets.) News is a commodity and is often -- not always, but all too often -- superficial and uninformative. Take any half hour newscast and strip it of gory crime stories, celebrity news, wacky features, weather and sports and what's left? It's not news.

Comical or a crime?

Alternet's article finds this latest "fake news" campaign comical, but for the fact that it isn't a far cry from accepting this kind of deception from accepting, uncritically, the words of those in power. And speaking of the damage corporate journalism wreaks on the American public, according to Karr, the report "draw[s] a clear line between media consolidation and the broadcast of deceptive, prepackaged propaganda. When all station owners care about is the bottom line, fake news can prove irresistible."

Yes, it's true, but what we need to examine, monitor, critique and contest is the news business as usual, the phoniness of the news itself, not just the occasional sleazy ads posing as news. We have to go after the meat, not the dressing.

We have to go further than focusing on some PR "packages" and begin questioning the whole package.

In 2000, the bipartisan Campaign for Better Elections found that local TV stations overcharged candidates and cluttered ads into unwatchable blocks. The practice was shameful. It was illegal. What was done? Nothing. It was a TV crime against democracy, but not one of you will see it on COPS or America's Most Wanted.

If TV crimes were ever prosecuted, Video News Releases would be misdemeanors compared to the calculated felonies than affect our electoral system and larger culture by dumbing it down and misleading the public.

Going after fake news these days demands challenging the news itself.

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