When I lived in the Soviet Union there was a popular saying, “there’s no truth in News and no news in Truth,” which loses something in translation until you realize that the two main newspapers in Russia were Isvestia which translates as ‘news’ and Pravda which translates as ‘truth’. In that period when the newspapers were state run organs of propaganda the irony of their chosen names was truly delicious.
The contemporary American left hasn’t become any less hypocritical or unwittingly ironic than their Soviet progenitors, and the spirit of Pravda and Isvestia is alive and well in the various activities of the Center for Media and Democracy. . Although the name sounds like a think tank, the organization is basically just the work of two enthusiastic socialists, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. They’re on a crusade to take down the corporate media, which they see as willing lackeys for the evil capitalists of the Republican Party and the Bush administration.
What makes the work of this dynamic duo interesting is that they are particularly adept at manufacturing propaganda which would make Pravda proud. Their specialization is the manufacturing of bogus ethical scandals, where they take common practices of business and government which have been going on for years and are perfectly reasonable and then spin them as some sort of evil conspiracy between the media and business or government designed to deceive and disinform the American public.
One of their most notable attempts at this sort of propaganda campaign is their ongoing effort to promote the idea that Video Press Releases from businesses or government agencies are some sort of nefarious propaganda. A VPR is basically similar to a traditional printed press release which describes a product or service, it’s just presented in a video format with images and a presentation style which makes it easy to use in whole or in part in a televised news story. The relationship between a VPR and modern media is essentially identical to the relationship between traditional press releases and print media. The practice of picking up stories from press releases and printing them in whole or in part, or using them as source material in a larger story has been common in the newspaper business for generations, so the fact that video news follows the same time-saving practices should hardly be surprising. But in the minds of Rampton and Stauber the mere act of drawing images or facts from a VPR automatically makes media outlets ethically bankrupt collaborators in disseminating corporate or government propaganda.
They’ve even gone beyond this to suggest that the use of VPRs by government agencies is a specific violation of federal laws against propaganda. They’ve reached the bizarre conclusion that it should be illegal for the Department of Education to advertise the availability of grants or for the Small Business Administration to promote their loan programs or for the Department of Health and Human Services to produce PSAs explaining their welfare programs. While there is certainly some government-originated advertising I’d like to see go away, it’s ridiculous to suggest that government doesn’t have the same right as private institutions to engage in a reasonable effort to publicize their programs. As a taxpayer I want to get value for the money I put into the government and I’m certainly not getting that if the agencies of government can’t engage in reasonable promotion of their programs.
The basic fallacy shaping the skewed reasoning of the folks at CMD is the assumption that the mere availability of government or corporate promotional news releases effectively forces the media to use them as if they were mere propaganda agents of their corporate or government masters. What they myopically choose not to take into consideration is the free will of the editors at the various news services, who know perfectly well what a VPR is and choose to use or not use the material, or to adapt it to their own purposes, with zero input or coercion from the people providing the VPR. Rampton and Stauber act like there’s a big fat corporate bribe or a a gun to the head of the news media, when in fact the choice to use this material is mostly one of convenience and perhaps laziness. But the fact that they may use material from these sources does not mean that they haven’t verified the factual accuracy of that material, or at least had the opportunity to do so if they are halfway responsible.
The latest manufactured ethical scandal from these reality-challenged media watchdogs is the use of various retired military officials as experts on talking-head shows, mostly on the cable news networks. They claim a vast Pentagon conspiracy to send out retired generals and colonels to spread happy-talk about the Iraq War and perpetuate the initial ‘lies’ from the Bush administration with a full-on campaign of propaganda. But again, what really went on here is completely ethically non-controversial. That it should be picked up on by the <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/washington/20generals.html?_r=1&oref=slogin”>New York Times</a> with their chronic jealousy of more modern media is not surprising. That anyone else should take it seriously is a sad commentary on how thoroughly partisanship has overwhelmed common sense in America today.
The basic story is that the Pentagon put some retirees on retainer who were qualified to discuss the Iraq War, and when asked by the media for people to put on the air as experts to present the military view of the war, they offered names from that list. That’s not an ethical breach, it’s a public service.
Again, as with the VPR non-scandal, the media outlets had full editorial control and discretion. They could check the backgrounds and qualifications of the people they put on the air, edit their statements and choose not to air them at all if that seemed appropriate. And since most of these appearances were on talk-format shows rather than news-format shows they could even put on guests with opposing opinions, which various left-leaning institutions or think tanks would be glad to provide from the list of experts they keep on retainer.
Perhaps the silliest aspect of this whole ‘scandal’ is that the choice of the media to put retired military personnel on the air as experts on a war is both logical and inevitable. Even without help from the Pentagon, if you go looking for experts on a war, you’re going to include retired military officers as one of your major pools of expertise. Chances are that being in the profession of making war, their knowledge and experience will come with some baggage, including an inclination to be pro-military and sympathetic to the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy. And of course, there are former military experts who have plenty of negative things to say about the Iraq War. Groups like Veterans Against the Iraq War actively promote their availability to the news media for these occasions.
In their bizarre fantasy world Rampton and Stauber seem to expect the media to pick random experts to put on the air with no foreknowledge of what their beliefs are likely to be and then make news and entertainment from the completely unexpected pronouncements that come from these unvetted and unbiased sources. Well, the truth is that this isn’t the way news is programmed, and these innocent and non-partisan experts don’t exist. The process which turns someone into an expert on a given subject naturally invests them with a point of view on that subject. Hell, plenty of people who know nothing about the Iraq War have opinions about it. And the editors and producers who bring us the news want to know what the views of their guests are in advance, and if they have concerns about impartiality they usually address it by putting on another guest with an opposing viewpoint. That’s how it works, and it’s usually pretty fair.
What the argument from CMD about these military experts really comes down to is an effort to silence that particular perspective in the debate over the Iraq War. It is a campaign of intimidation and false accusation aimed at the media and the Pentagon and the innocent individuals involved, to make them look ethically bankrupt and shut them up, in the best tradition not only of Pravda but also of Senator Joe McCarthy. The problem is that there is no ethical violation from any of the parties involved, just business as usual. There’s not even enough of a controversy here to prompt anyone to seriously consider ethical media reform.
The scandal is manufactured and the crimes are imaginary. Rampton and Stauber are liars and bullies and propagandists whose interest is not in having objective media, but in forcing the media to present only one point of view, theirs.