A conspicuously biased news article printed in the Washington Post on December 31, 2009 is raising the eyebrows of public policy experts, bloggers, media watchdogs other news outlets alike. Sign our petition to tell the Post no more fake news!
Titled "Support grows for tackling nation's debt," the article discusses a proposal to create a government commission to examine America's growing debt. The new commission, according to the article, would be charged with exploring "how to rein in skyrocketing spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," but the article failed to mention other significant sources of government spending, like the $663 billion military budget.
The story points to growing support for such a commission among political figures, but fails to mention the 40 or so prominent organizations that oppose the plan, including the NAACP, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), AARP, Common Cause, the AFL-CIO, and the National Organization for Women (NOW). The article was not written by Post reporters, but was produced by a startup "news" organization called the Fiscal Times, whose byline describes it is an "independent news publication that reports on fiscal, budgetary, healthcare and international economic issues." But is it truly "independent"?
We want to give a hat tip to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) for outing the Fiscal Times as a propaganda outlet masquerading as a news service that was created and funded by Wall Street billionaire Peter G. Peterson, a former member of President Nixon's administration who has long used his wealth to promote cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other government entitlement programs. The Post initially failed to reveal to readers the origins and funding of the Fiscal Times, and only did so six days later, in a small correction run on January 5. That "correction," however, reiterated the assertion that the Fiscal Times is "independent" and merely noted that the story should have disclosed that one of the sources quoted in the story was funded by the same funder as the writers of the story.
A Storm of Protest
The Washington Post has taken a serious hit for printing the story. FAIR accused the Post of letting lobbyists write its stories. Somewhat more mildly, the New York Times said the sourcing of the article was "awkward" for the Post. The UK Guardian lamented that in publishing the Fiscal Times piece, the Post had compromised its integrity and long, proud reputation as an independent journalistic outlet. A group of 21 policy experts from universities, law schools and policy research organizations around the country have written a letter to the Post's ombudsman protesting the Fiscal Times article, and warning that publication of the piece "could signal the death of the daily newspaper as an independent and objective news source." Signatories to the letter also protested a formal "content sharing" agreement the Post has entered into with the Fiscal Times to publish more Fiscal Times pieces in its pages in the future. Politico has questioned the Post's partnership with Fiscal Times, and the Columbia Journalism Review also critically discussed the partnership.
Private Interests: "Becoming" the Media?
Wealthy, private entities trying to take over news outlets and control the message is not a new idea. Unsurprisingly, the idea may have originated with the most cunning of cigarette makers, Philip Morris (PM).
In 1990, PM held an internal meeting called "Top Secret Operation Rainmaker," in which the company envisioned influencing public opinion and the national policy agenda by literally taking over major news outlets. Notes from the meeting say,
If we are to truly influence the public policy agenda and the information flow to the populace, we must be the media, we must be part of it. The only way to do this is to own a major media outlet ... If we are not willing to take this step, then we are not serious about really wanting to change the atmosphere. Organizations that should be very seriously considered [for acquisition] include:
--the Copley News Service
--United Press International
--or a major city daily that has access to -- and from -- all of the major wire services.
Tweaking the Strategy
PM understood that independent news media was not their friend, and that to influence the public mind and public policy, they had to control the news. But instead of taking over established news outlets -- as PM envisioned was necessary 20 years ago -- private interests are now creating their own news outlets, and then working to get their preferred information disseminated through well-established, credible outlets, like the Washington Post. It's a clever idea for those who want not only to create the news, but to get people to believe it, too. After all, to be effective, news has to be believed.
The timing is right for this strategy, too. Cash-strapped news organizations are cutting expenses, and this makes pre-packaged "news" more attractive to them, since it saves them from having to pay their own reporters to gather news independently.
This isn't the first time special interests have leveraged the desperation of news organizations to get their way with the news, either. PRWatch exposed the rampant use of video news releases -- videotaped "news segments" produced by public relations firms for corporations, that are marketed to news outlets and then broadcast as pre-packaged local television "news." The appearance of the Fiscal Times' piece in the Washington Post, and the resulting dust-up over it, serves as a warning that printed fake news pieces are also now appearing in trusted mainstream newspapers.
Tough Times for News Consumers
This makes things even harder on news consumers. In addition to simply trying to understand an issue, now readers must try and tease out "real" news from planted news that is likely to have a bias. Opinions used to be clearly labeled in the "Editorial" section a newspaper, but no more -- deft PR strategies like the one exposed in the Washington Post mean that opinions now openly masquerade as "news," and significant facts may be left out of articles to help sway public opinion.
For a trusted news source to engage in this type of behavior diminishes the credibility and value of all news media to society. We can only hope that all the groups and individuals who are calling out the Post for publishing this type of material will result in papers reconsidering their use of biased news sources, and whether their use in fact brings value to their organizations, or shame.
To join our petition to the Washington Post and object to this fake news, click here.