Infoganda: The Real Indecency in Broadcast

In a publicist-driven culture where it's an art form to blur the line between truth and fiction, local TV news is becoming a powerful enabler.
Author:
Publish date:

The origin of the term infoganda—propaganda disguised as information—is said to be Comedy Central, where it was used in a joke about media. Its refinement as an actual broadcast technique, unfortunately, gets credited to local television news.

Forget Janet Jackson's breast. In the ensuing FCC witch hunt over indecency, not once has it been suggested that perhaps the most indecent phenomenon on terrestrial television today is the intentional misrepresentation of promotional and advertising content as fact.

In a publicist-driven culture where it's an art form to blur the line between truth and fiction, local TV news is becoming a powerful enabler. For many viewers, it has become impossible to know the difference between what's real and what's propaganda.

When a celebrity who is paid a hefty fee by a pharmaceutical company pitches the "benefits" of that company's drug on a local newscast or talkshow, does the news producer have an obligation to viewers to reveal this is a pseudo commercial?

When a newscast airs a government- or corporate-provided "news package," should the viewer be told this miniproduction advocates the point-of-view of a special interest and the "reporter" is probably an actor or a pitch person?

INFORMATION MIASMA

Apparently, plenty of news directors at local stations think airing such infoganda is just fine. As Frank Rich, culture critic at "The New York Times," wrote: "these days in our 24/7 information miasma, real journalism and its evil twin merge into a mind-bending mutant that would defy a polygraph's ability to sort out the lies from the truth."

At least newspapers, hit by their own spate of recent journalistic scandals, are trying to clean house. Almost a dozen U.S. newspapers, ranging from "The New York Times," "Chicago Tribune" and "USA Today" to "The Sedalia Democrat" in Missouri, have found fabricated or plagiarized stories in their publications over the past year.

Most of these information outlets have reviewed or are in the process of reviewing their news policies and ethics, and they are attempting to prevent future journalistic fraud in an era when reporters can easily and quickly lift material found on the Internet. One wonders, however, whether local broadcast news operations see anything wrong with the practice—much less whether or not they are pursuing reforms.

FAKE REPORTERS

Where was the outrage among TV broadcasters when the story broke that the Bush administration hired "fake" reporters at taxpayers' expense to use local TV news to promote the Republicans' new Medicare prescription drug plan to the elderly in a news-style video produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services?

Perhaps there was a deafening silence because this promotional video was broadcast under the guise of "news" in part or whole by more than 50 TV stations in 40 states, "The New York Times" reported.

Worse yet, many TV stations apparently are so fond of such pre-produced handouts that the government has a $124 million budget to keep churning them out.

The government's official response to this revelation of tax-financed infoganda using the publicly owned airwaves, according to a "The New York Times" article: "Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some research on modern public information tools."

Expanding the absurdity was the hiring of a woman named Karen Ryan who was described as a "reporter" in at least one of the Medicare productions. The government claimed that Ryan was an actual "free-lance journalist" hired to appear in the video.

However, the Columbia Journalism Review, not accepting that statement at face value, did a little research of its own. It uncovered that Ryan's previous assignments included serving as a TV "shill" for pharmaceutical companies in infomercials plugging such products as FluMist and Excedrin. So much for journalistic credentials!

SOFT NEWS

It is hard to determine to what extent stations are using such hand-out packages in place of locally produced legitimate news programming. However, the practice is obviously popular enough that conglomerates like Proctor & Gamble constantly generate soft news features on such subjects as health care, parenting and nutrition.

At the end of the segment, the "reporter" will suggest a Web site where the viewer can learn more about the subject in the story. You guessed it, the Web site just happens to showcase a Proctor & Gamble product. For example, a segment on diaper rash might direct the viewer to an ad for
Pampers.

As part of its justification for allowing TV stations to have free use of publicly owned spectrum, the NAB has long argued that local broadcast news is a public service. If this is the case, shouldn't the public have a reasonable expectation that what it sees is genuine news and not propaganda disguised as news?

Perhaps the FCC should focus its outrage on the serious issue of fake news—a real indecency that can actually hurt people.