14 March 2005

Spin Control: NBC offers whine with the news

NBC Nightly news today offered up some whining to go with the rest of its coverage.

The story: "GOP under fire for producing news ‘reports’; Critics say it’s nothing but PR disguised as news" by Andrea Mitchell.

"Available on the Internet to TV stations across the country: Upbeat reports on Iraq. [...]But all these reports were written and distributed by the administration and its public relations firms — not by journalists."

The offensive Internet video pieces are all a form of video news releases (VNRs), a recent version of the standard type-written news release that is offered in either audio only or in video formats that, like their print relatives, follow the style of a news broadcast.

Mitchell's report suggests that these government-produced videos are being improperly distributed to the American public and are not being correctly identified as to the source. She refers to a recent Government Accountability Office report that appears to label all Bush administration VNRs as propaganda and therefore banned under a law dating back to the early 1950s.

There are a few problems with Ms. Mitchell's report that qualify her it as pure spin: blatant and deliberate misrepresentation of facts.

1. Take a trip to the State department site. Here's the link. You only get to this page after clicking on the Press and Public Affairs link (another word for public or media relations) and then clicking on a link called audio and video release. Start at www.state.gov to see my point.

Ms. Mitchell doesn't indicate anywhere how this is actually deceptive from the perspective of anyone visiting the website of a government department. The materials are clearly labeled and anyone navigating the State site will only get to the audio and video releases by the same route they would get to the print ones.

2. Ms. Mitchell does refer to a GAO opinion. What she doesn't state is that this opinion was rendered based on a 2003 appropriations amendment that provides "No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.” Pub. L. No. 108-7, Div. J, Tit. VI, § 626, 117 Stat. 11, 470 (2003). That is an extract from a specific decision by the GAO.

Now look more closely at the criteria the GAO used in its assessment to determine if a particular video news release violates the ban on publicity or propaganda not specifically authorized by Congress. To violate the ban, a video news release must:

- be self-aggrandizing;
- purely partisan in nature; or,
- covert as to source.

In my quick survey, the materials as presented on the departmental websites are neither self-agrandizing, purely partisan and they are clearly not covert.

What are the odds the "ban" was added by the Democrats as part of the ongoing partisan war with the Bush White House?

Personally, even if that weren't true, I'd consider the GOA decisions as essential information for Ms. Mitchell's report. Leaving out the context of the GAO decisions counts as deliberately misleading or misrepresenting matters of fact that would have the effect of advertently or inadvertently misleading her audience.

Ms. Mitchell's piece appears to condemn all VNRs; US federal law and the GAO opinions are about very specific pieces of work.

If anything, Ms. Mitchell has a problem with some of her colleagues in the world of TV news who, as her piece notes, use the VNRs and dub their own voices onto the audio track using exactly the same script to make it appear as though they were original.

Here are a couple of observations from the real world: that type of misrepresentation described by Ms. Mitchell - that is the presentation of someone else's work as one's own is utterly unethical - it is plagiarism. It's a firing offense. Redub an audio track verbatim; expect to get fired. If Andrea Mitchell wanted to do a story, she had one right there.

But it is equally improper for Ms. Mitchell and NBC to slag "public relations" people for the failings of her colleagues.

If she were to look at the "print" news releases it is very common for a significant chunk of the release content to make into print copy or into video and audio voice-overs by reporters. There is no substantive difference between the print and video versions of news releases nor in their subsequent use by reporters in that instance. That said, however, using upwards of 60% of my copy, for example, in a reporter's account makes me smile, but it is hardly the travesty Ms. Mitchell claims.

I label my stuff accurately and to the best of my knowledge my professional colleagues do likewise. However, NBC should not attack public relations professionals for doing their job in a similar manner. If Ms. Mitchell can demonstrate otherwise, then report the plain facts - don't use a limited GAO report or series of reports on specific incidents as a blanket condemnation of a useful information tool. Ms. Mitchell's report is akin to spearing all journalists because one guy invented quotes and even people.

To go a step farther, I would also question the validity of the GAO report cited above. It makes reference to government-prepared editorials and labels them as propaganda since they are "covert". Not exactly. If the news organization receiving them knows where they are coming from, then they are overt. If the news organization misrepresents the editorial copy then it is at fault.

So why is this whining?

Well, some news organizations dislike the Internet. Established electronic media - like CBC for example - thrive on being able to interpret the world for their audiences. They made their bread and butter and want to continue making it by being the filter through which the wider public gets its information.

In the old days, a news release only went to a news room where it could be dissected, plagiarised, attacked, ignored or whatevered at the whim of the news editors and the reporters.

Today, thanks to the Internet an organization can supply its perspective unfiltered to the audience. It's all usually clearly marked so no one gets fooled, but in a sense it cuts out the middle-man.

That's one of the reasons CBC took such a vehement, almost rabid stand against embedding reporters with military forces during the invasion of Iraq.

It's one of the reasons why a reporter like Andrea Mitchell would spin her report against video news releases and their distribution via the Internet. Go back and look at her lead again.

And the other piece of spin today? This story followed a report that the Bush administration has just appointed someone to help improve communications with the Middle East. What better time to lob some flak at the new flak-bait.

Well spun, Andrea.

As your close indicates, the best way to spin the news is spin it yourself.

Too bad none of piece was news you can trust.