There’s been a flurry of concern recently about the use of “video news releases” by federal government agencies and by the Schwarzenegger administration in California. These taped presentations of information with a spin are packaged like a TV news report and sometimes are used by local TV stations in ways that blend seamlessly with the rest of the news broadcasts.
Such segments, which have been used to promote the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription drug packages, the work of the Transportation Security Administration and its airport checkers, the war on terror, the “liberation” of Iraq or Afghanistan and various other government programs, often cross the line between providing information — which the government should always be ready to do — and manipulating public opinion — which in a genuinely democratic or free society the government should never do.
The federal Government Accountability Office, for example, criticized a news segment on the Medicare prescription drug benefit that ran as part of news shows on at least 40 TV stations, as containing “notable omissions” and being “not strictly factual.” Such reports, it said, may amount to “covert propaganda,” and the GAO said federal agencies should not produce reports “that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials.”
In a way — if government is viewed simply as one more interest group in a universe of interest groups striving for prominence and dominance — you almost can’t blame governments for not taking advantage of the opportunity. Certainly many TV stations have been complicit by airing such prepackaged reports, sometimes removing taglines that identify them as having been prepared by a government agency. And private corporations also offer such taped segments, which some TV stations blend into features on health or lifestyles.
But government is not just another interest group, as much as it often acts like one. It is the institution granted a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given society, supposedly so it can maintain order and punish those who break clear-cut laws.
In a democratic society, government is supposed to pay attention to public opinion and political processes so it can respond to people’s legitimate desires. When it participates in that process, it undermines both the legitimacy of the process and its own legitimacy.
Whether or not publicity releases of various kinds have an overt political agenda, as the Government Accountability Office said the Medicare segments did, or simply try to tell the “good news” side of an agency’s activities, they all convey a persistent message: “Government is good and more government is better.” We forget that is a quintessentially political message — one the founders of this republic explicitly rejected — at peril to our future liberty.
As Thomas Jefferson put it, “to compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
There used to be an ethic and even now there are laws that limit the government’s ability to intrude into the political process with tax-paid messages. The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s code of ethics asks members to “clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders.”
Short of banishing all taxpayer-funded propaganda, government agencies should start to err on the side of neutral information and TV news shows should be more diligent about labeling stories from both government and corporate outside entities.
If this issue gains traction as citizens and consumers complain more often, we might just be able to shame all concerned into acting more responsibly. There is certainly reason for citizens to be angry and for propagandists to be ashamed of themselves.