W hen comedian Norm McDonald was on “Saturday Night Live,” he was the anchorman on the show’s Weekend Update skit. He would read headlines from that week’s news and change portions of the stories to make them funny.
At the end of the segment he would sign off with the words, “And that’s the fake news.” It was funny as part of a comedy skit, but it has no place in the real world of journalism. More importantly, it has no place in government.
And we’re not alone in that belief. That was the conclusion reached by the Government Accountability Office when it slapped the Bush administration on the wrist recently for distributing “covert propaganda,” illegal under federal law.
The GAO scolded the Office of Drug Control Policy for a series of government-produced anti-drug television messages packaged as news reports. The spots, announcing new anti-drug efforts, were distributed to television stations around the country, complete with suggested scripts for lead-ins to the bogus reports.
The administration defended the tapes, saying they were no different than printed news releases routinely sent to print media outlets. There is some merit in that argument, but newspapers and magazines generally rewrite those releases and attribute their sources. The government’s tapes had no such attribution.
Some television stations used portions or entire reports and presented them to their viewers as news. That’s an ethics problem those stations will have to deal with to keep faith with their viewers, but the administration broke federal laws that bar the government from engaging in such covert propaganda.
ODCP officials contend the stations knew the spots were produced by the government and it did nothing improper. From what we’ve seen, that’s partly true. One video, “Urging parents to Get the Facts Straight on Teen Marijuana Use,” came complete with a script for anchors to read to lead into the report.
A series of interviews with Drug Czar John Walters and other experts on teen drug use follows. The video closes with, “This is Mike Morris reporting.” Morris is a former journalist who now works for the government.
The report sounds like pretty standard stuff; we see similar reports regularly on the evening news. There’s not much of a credibility problem there.
However, another video purports to show a news conference featuring several ODCP officials. The “news conference,” however, was a setup, with the officials reading from scripts. “In essence, they’re actors,” said Susan Poling, managing associate general counsel at GAO.
One of the foundations of a free society is an independent press, completely free of government influence. Although some news outlets are often accused of supporting one faction or another of government, they are independent from those factions and don’t get their marching orders from any political party. The press’ role in a free society is to keep citizens informed about what government is doing and to hold officials accountable to the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold.
That’s not possible if the media are spoon-fed supposed news stories that support government agendas. The feds should stay out of the news business and the media should be more careful about their sources.