The media is manipulated in all manners, for example through professional public relations (PR), and covert and overt government propaganda which disseminates propaganda as news. What are often deemed as credible news sources can often knowingly or unknowingly be pushing political agendas and propaganda.
A. Media management and public relations is very professional
The impacts of public relations cannot be underestimated. In the commercial world, marketing and advertising are typically needed to make people aware of products. There are many issues in that area alone (which is looked at in this site’s section on corporate media.) When it comes to propaganda for purposes of war, for example, professional public relations firms can often be involved to help sell a war. In cases where a war is questionable, the PR firms are indirectly contributing to the eventual and therefore unavoidable casualties. Media management may also be used to promote certain political policies and ideologies. Where this is problematic for the citizenry is when media reports on various issues do not attribute their sources properly.
Some techniques used by governments and parties/people with hidden agendas include:
1. Paying journalists to promote certain issues without the journalist acknowledging this, or without the media mentioning the sources;
2. Governments and individuals contracting PR firms to sell a war, or other important issues
3. Disinformation or partial information reported as news or fact without attributing sources that might be questionable
4. PR firms feeding stories to the press without revealing the nature of the information with the intention of creating a public opinion (for example, to support a war, as the previous link highlights where even human rights groups fell for some of the disinformation, thus creating an even more effective propaganda campaign).
The Gulf War in Iraq, 1991, highlighted a lot of PR work in action.
The 2003 war on Iraq saw similar amounts of public relations and media manipulation at work. A detailed account was given by Ahmed Chalabi who seemed to boast how he helped influence major politicians and countries into drumming the beats of war against Iraq.
B. Smear tactics are increasing in sophistication
Smear tactics are often used to discredit, stain or destroy the reputation of someone. It is unfortunatley common-place and is an age-old technique. It can either involve outright lies, or a distortion of the truth.
With the increasing popularity of the Internet, and search engines such as Google, smearing is taking on additional forms and techniques. Juan Cole, a professor of history has described what he has coined a GoogleSmear as a political tactic to discredit him. His personal experience is quoted here:
It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far right wing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news. Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes). Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information.
C. Fake News
March 2005 has seen some revelations in the mainstream about fake news whereby organizations and journalists working for public relations firms or a government department have produced news reports. The problem arises where these reports are either presented as factual news by journalists, or have been rebroadcast by news stations without revealing that the segment is from an organization or the government, thus giving it the appearance of genuine news.
David Miller, of Spin Watch, in the UK has noted in a commentary that there is a lot of fake news, and it has been going on for a long time:
This is the age of the fake. We live in an era where the gap between how the world is and how powerful interests try to portray it has grown dramatically wider. Virtually nothing in public debate these days is free of the virus of fakery….
Today distortions [such as the famous Stalinist airbrushing of Trotsky from photographs of the Russian revolutionary period] are much more easily contrived. The advent of the digital camera has made it easier, cheaper and quicker to take and distribute photographs — and to manipulate them. In the last couple of years there have been several examples of photos produced to artificially inflate the size of crowds listening to a speech by George Bush for example. An LA Times journalist was sacked in 2003 for manipulating a photograph of a British soldier in Basra.
The problem with fakes is that the images do not need to be false to mislead. The photos showed by Colin Powell in his presentation to the UN on Iraq were genuine. They just did not show the things that he said they did….
D. Fake News in the United States
In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that there has been a large amount of fake and prepackaged news created by US government departments, such as the Pentagon, the State Department and others, and disseminated through the mainstream media. The New York Times noted a number of important issues including:
1. The US Bush administration has aggressively used public relations to prepackage news. Issues with this have included that:
a. A number of these government-made news segments are made to look like local news (either by the government
department or by the receiving broadcaster);
b. Sometimes these reports have fake reporters such as when a reporter covering airport safety was actually a
public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration;
c. Other times, there is no mention that a video segment is produced by the government;
d. Where there is some attribution, news stations simply rebroadcast them but sometimes without attributing the
2. These segments have reached millions;
3. This benefits both the government and the broadcaster;
4. This could amount to propaganda within the United States as well as internationally.
Effectively, American tax payers have paid to be subjected to propaganda disseminated through these massaged messaged.
Citing the New York Times at length:
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.
E. Government Propaganda through Prepackaged News
When some government officials were confronted about this problem by the Times a common response was that they didn’t believe it was propaganda or there was nothing wrong. When it was the case that the news stations didn’t source the segment correctly, this can be understood. But, when the segment itself has been used to pursue ideological or political agendas, then this response is more questionable. Furthermore, the Times also noted, that
the [US] Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper covert propaganda even if their origin is made clear to the television stations.
F. Illegal US Domestic Propaganda but Legal International Propaganda?
The above-mentioned strategy by the Bush administration to emphasize positive views of American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq reveals some deeper issues hinted to, but not explored by the Times article:
United States law contains provisions intended to prevent the domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign audiences, but not at home.
While further above it was noted that domestic propaganda may be a problem here, so too is the admission that propaganda to foreign audiences is ok.
G. Widespread Use of Video News Releases By Corporations and Government Agencies
The Center for Media and Democracy published a report noting that pre-packaged Video News Release (VNR) use was widespread, often disguised as news from the broadcasting station:
The quality and integrity of television reporting … significantly impacts the public’s ability to evaluate everything from consumer products to medical services to government policies.
To reach this audience—and to add a veneer of credibility to clients’ messages—the public relations industry uses video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are pre-packaged news segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. VNRs are designed to be seamlessly integrated into newscasts, and are freely provided to TV stations. Although the accompanying information sent to TV stations identifies the clients behind the VNRs, nothing in the material for broadcast does. Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they’re watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that report.
H. Fake news in the United Kingdom
Spin Watch and Media Lens reveals that the British media also has fake news.
An investigation revealed for example, that fake journalists have been providing news reports to the BBC. The BBC has been using these reports as if they were genuine news when in fact some of the journalists were working for an organization entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence as a propaganda operation.
The UK is awash with fake news, of which the examples here are only a taste, it is just that we don’t pay much attention to it. The American scandals over fake news are played out against the background of some pretty clear laws forbidding propaganda with a disguised source within the borders of the US. There are no laws forbidding fake news in the UK. Perhaps we needs some.