This afternoon I listened in on a conference call among some of the top PR execs in the business of producing video news releases (VNRs), more honestly called fake news. I can report they are proud and confident that the recent "flap" on the front page of Sunday's New York Times about the Bush administration's use of fake news will amount to nothing at all. These PR executives are elated that the New York Times piece was about government propaganda, and not about their much more widespread and lucrative production of corporate VNRs, the biggest and richest part of the fake news business.
The conference call was arranged by PR trade press maven Jack O'Dwyer. It featured top PR executives in the fake news business, including Doug Simon of D S Simon Productions, Stan Zeitlin of West Glen Communications, Larry Moskowitz of Medialink Worldwide and KEF Media's Kevin Foley. These are the companies that are producing and distributing the thousands of VNRs sent to TV networks and stations each year. The VNRs are fake news stories, paid for by clients ranging from the Pentagon to Monsanto, that are aired by TV news producers as if they were independent reporting and the work of real journalists, rather than PR operatives who used to be real journalists.
The real journalists at the TV networks and stations are engaging in fraud and plagiarism on a massive scale when they pawn off these VNRs as real news. If you were a journalism student with an assignment to produce a TV news story, and your professor discovered that someone else had done all your work for you and given the story to you to pass off as your own, you should be expelled. But in the real world of TV journalism, you would just collect your paycheck and go home.
There is also payola involved. Money flows from the VNR producing PR firms to the TV networks for "distribution costs," and the networks send the VNRs out to their affiliates for use on the air.
Listening to the PR executives today was both amusing and infuriating. These fellows are whistling past the graveyard, assuring themselves that this all is no big deal. There was no hint of shame, certainly no apologizing, just apparent disdain for having their business practices dissected on the front page of the New York Times. They are proud of their work.
Frankly, why would these PR execs worry? In the eleven years that our organization has been exposing fake news, the New York Times article is the first major mainstream coverage that I can recall. This "flap" could simply dissipate. It might even publicize and promote the fake news industry resulting in more business for these PR firms. Rob Zaleski of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times, interviewed me about this for his column today. Here is part of his report:
"The Times article just confirms everything we've found [said Stauber], including the fact that when you actually go out and confront TV news producers and news directors on their use of video news releases, they'll deny it. And you don't know if they're lying or they're honestly ignorant, because now, as the article points out, this stuff is fed through the networks."
Question is, will the Times' expose be a turning point? Or, once the controversy dies down, will TV stations merely revert to their old habits?
"I think it could be either," Stauber says. "The New York Times is still the paper of record. And when they give something this much play, it has an impact.
"But it could be just a little blip and we're not going to see another major story about this for another decade. Certainly the TV media aren't going to go anywhere near this, because it's a story of the corruption of TV in particular."
However, Stauber says there are definite indications that the public's disgust with the Bush administration is growing. And he thinks there's an opportunity now - thanks in part to the Times article - to pressure Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to toughen and enforce laws against "covert propaganda" and demand that broadcasters "come clean with viewers about using government-produced news."
To that end, Stauber says his group has joined with the nonpartisan public interest group Free Press in an effort to gather 250,000 signatures on petitions aimed at stopping such deplorable tactics. "Unless we act now," he says, "the White House will continue to act with impunity - taking advantage of understaffed and incautious local news operations to manipulate public opinion."
Stauber, by the way, says that he too is amazed that the Bush administration doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed by all the revelations of the last few months. Then again, "at this point, who would they be accountable to?" he says with a laugh. "We haven't really seen a high level of accountability within the administration on a single issue. I mean, who's walked the plank on anything?"