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Saturday, January 8, 2005

Readers at SouthKnoxBubba's weblog are calling Senator Bill Frist unflattering names, based on these last two lines of the Associated Press story about his trip to Sri Lanka:

Just before his helicopter lifted off, Frist and aides took snapshots of each other near a pile of tsunami debris.
``Get some devastation in the back,'' Frist told a photographer.

The AP story also suggests that although the Red Cross is doing wonderful relief work, a clinic Frist visited was only set up a few hours before they arrived, while Muslim community groups were getting less credit for their efforts.

Unrelated story (but I'll explain the juxtaposition in a minute): An Asheville Citizen-Times editorial is railing against "fake news" paid for by the Bush administration to promote its policies, after pundit Armstrong Williams admitted to a $240,000 contract to push the No Child Left Behind program, and a government study called some video news releases "covert propaganda."

The (Armstrong) deal was part of an arrangement with the Ketchum public relations firm, which among other things has produced fake new reports ("video news releases") for distribution to local television stations to pitch its Medicare drug prescription plan.

Another recently disclosed "news report'' by the Office of National Drug Control Policy featured a pitch called "Urging Parents to Get the Facts Straight on Teen Marijuana Use,'' by "reporter'' Mike Morris. The Medicare and drug pieces were distributed for use by local television stations, which is fine. They didn't disclose that they were essentially government press releases.

"Public relations should be labeled as such, not hidden as legitimate reporting," the editorial says.

However, if stories based on press releases were printed in green ink, some small newspapers would look like big dollar bills. The difference at better-quality papers is the "gatekeeping" judgment of the editors who decide which handouts are worth a story and the reporters who decide how much original reporting to add, or whether there's an untold -- or "unspun" -- side to the story.

Maybe that's why the AP reporter covering Frist mentioned the Muslim man's critique of the Red Cross and closed with that "devastation" quote from the senator. The story had more sides. In print and on the Web, there was room for that kind of juxtaposition. And he did leave the photo-posing anecdote for the very end, even if a left-leaning blogger was waiting to point it out.

Other media outlets (including television) had less room or gave Frist more benefit of the doubt; some even carried an op-ed report by his aide with much more detail, including names of corporations that donated relief supplies.

Television's answer to the op-ed page is the "infomercial" and its subtle "video news release" cousins. Whether in canned or uncanned coverage, TV viewers can't escape being bombarded with set-up symbolic images conveying a feeling more than information. Sometimes I think that if they banned every politician's photograph posed in front of a disaster scene -- or an American flag -- we'd all be watching blank screens.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has drawn the line on some prepackaged news, calling it "covert propaganda." Here's the Washington Post report on the GAO investigation of those Medicare benefit and anti drug abuse campaigns.

As for Armstrong Williams, Tribune Media Services has cancelled his column, and he told USA Today that the criticism of his relationship with the Department of Education is "legitimate":

"It's a fine line," he told The Associated Press on Friday. "Even though I'm not a journalist -- I'm a commentator -- I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."

That "I'm not a journalist" admission reminds me of the old ad with a man in a white coat saying, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television..." It also reminds me of professor David Mindich's story about one of his students shocking him with the phrase, "journalists like David Letterman..."

Journalists, commentators, publicists, bloggers... we'll do a lot of talking about defining those roles during this semester's news writing courses, and these links should come in handy.
10:53:30 AM    

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